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Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski got together one day back in the late 1970s to talk Film. Kubrick loved "The Tenant" so much he said he wanted to make a film of that caliber. Polanski's response was that he loved "Barry Lyndon" so much he wanted to make a period piece just as epic as that one. So both men did just that. They paid tribute to each other. Polanski made "Tess" and Kubrick made "The Shining". Both films were released around the same time.
"The Tenant" is truly an amazing movie, macabre, twisted, marvelously performed, and engrossing like few other "horror" films, if you can call it that. "The Tenant" is actually an uncanny (in both sense of the word here) portrayal of a psychological breakdown, that ends in a chilling and tragic finale. Mister Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), a Frenchman of Polish origin, moves into an apartment. The previous tenant had just thrown herself out of the window while attempting to commit suicide, and is barely alive at the hospital. Rather quickly, Trelkovsky develops an unhealthy fixation on that woman and decides to go visit her. At the beginning, it's really by politeness and concern that he does so, but quickly, you realize that something just started to go wrong. Little by little, Trelkovsky start to believe that the landlord and the other tenants in the building are plotting against him, trying to turn him into the previous tenant so that he would commit suicide as well. Little by little, ordinary remarks and actions are perceived in the most paranoid way as aggressive: the world is out to have him killed in the most sinister and complicated way.
There are several technical elements of the movie that truly stand out. First, the score is haunting. This is a piece of music you'll remember for a long time. Second, the overall cinematography and art direction are first class. In a rather open homage to "Rear Window", Polanski treats us with acrobatic camera work that flies up and down the courtyard of the large building, showing us the expanse of the décor, and the details of the building. It's simply austere, but beautiful to watch. The building, and the courtyard, where the final act takes place, develops a powerful evil presence throughout the movie. Finally, Polanski himself, on top of giving us top notch direction, also provides an amazing performance. The polite, almost transparent, easily bullied, "I don't want any trouble" man is so endearing, if a little pathetic, and following him down to insanity is a painful voyage indeed. I dare you not to gasp several times at the end of the movie seeing what happens to him, and how Polanski portrays it. It's absolutely a first class performance, Oscar worthy.
There is however one thing that truly bothered me a LOT. The movie has a fairly large supporting cast, with French, British and American actors. Both the English and French speaking tracks are horrible. Most actors seem to be actually speaking English for most of the movie, so you'd think that the English track would be the best one to listen to. Big mistake. For some reason, even though I can see the lips speaking in English, the voices themselves are dubbed over: I know all those French actors and recognize that these are not their voices. So I feel like the French actors were trying to speak English, but it was so terrible that Polanski dubbed over them. This creates a double dubbing effect and denatures a lot of the movie. And when you watch the French track, the voices sound a little bit better, but they don't synch with the actors' lips. So either way, it's bad. I found myself switching between the French and English tracks in order to get the best of each, but that gets distracting for this otherwise impressively engrossing movie.
I had seen this movie several times before, so this is why i allowed myself to do this this time. Now, i do know all the actors and their voices. I have also been watching foreign movies with subtitles since i was a kid, so i can really watch the image in details and read the subtitles at the same time. It's a good skill to have when you are into Foreign movies (and for the first 18 years of my life, that meant anything not in French). Dubbing is something i have always perceived instantly, and 99.9% of the time, it bugs me beyond belief. So, this very negative experience with "The Tenant" might be just for me.
On the writing side, the film is not only engrossing and absorbing, with genuine terror building up to a grand finale. It's also an incredible commentary on Polanski's own life. On the one hand, he explains in his notes that he used French actors for people his age in the film, his friends, but for the older people, the "monsters" from the building, he used American actors. Of course, this was a commercial effort for the US market: remember, he had just made Chinatown! But more importantly, he saw America as the reason for his wife's murder, and this duality in him has never subsided: America gave him international fame, and also killed the woman he loved. It's all the more telling that he also wrote in his note that he also wanted to look at Parisians and highlight what he perceived as their pretentious and racist core. In the end, he superimposed the worst traits of French people he experienced after the war (and what transpired from the war itself), and the American nationality, for his evil foes.
This is a strange, weird movie that pulls you without mercy along the path a man travels from sanity to paranoid delusion and finally, suicide. Polanski shows us the measure of his talent, both behind and in front of the camera. It's a great companion to Rosemary's Baby. This is a powerful movie that would have been a perfect ten if it weren't for its voice management which is frankly appalling for a movie of this quality.
- Laurent Hasson