Having signed a new lease this weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time with a film about the dark side of apartment dwelling: Roman Polanski's The Tenant, the third film in a loose thematic trilogy about renters going insane. The film about apartment-hunters going insane, a subject with which I am now intimately familiar, has not yet been made.

The bones of the story are thus: Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) is a meek little office clerk, a Polish immigrant living in Paris. Looking for an apartment in an extremely tight market, he finds that an opening has just been created by the attempted suicide of one Simone Choule, a woman who dove from her bedroom window and now lies in a coma. Trelkovsky ponies up a terribly disproportionate sum of money to secure her rooms in the event of her death, and when that tragic event occurs he not only moves into her home, but also her life, lying his way into her circle of friends. Meanwhile, he becomes increasingly confused by the hallucinogenic behavior of his new neighbors, whom he begins to suspect of deliberately trying to drive him to the same madness that killed Simone.

A plot recap hardly captures the essence of The Tenant, however: it is a film of mood and emotion, not of story - which is, at any rate, extremely difficult to grasp. Unlike the previous films in the trilogy, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant never really leaves the protagonist's head, and it's a dizzying place to be: Trelkovsky is a fragile soul, and his view of the world is an extremely subjective one, assuming everything and everyone is corrupt and damaging. It matters immensely that Polanski cast himself in this role: not that he is a good actor (indeed, he is terrible, often giggling in the middle of lines for no reason other than as the cheapest possible means of suggesting "crazy person") but that his life was famously one of nearly-constant suffering of the most intense and evil kind, from the Holocaust to the Manson Family. Frankly, it seems likely that Polanski legitimately believed that most people were murderous and cruel until proven otherwise. Certainly, Trelkovsky was one of the most autobiographical figures in his canon: it was Polanski's choice to change the source novel's Russian emigrรฉ into a Pole, and the constant references to Trelkovsky's alien status, even as he feebly protests that he is a French citizen, are surely resonant with Polanski's well-documented feelings as an exotic outsider in the Hollywood community. There is perhaps no meaningful line between the character's paranoiac solipsism and the director's.

And yet - The Tenant does not endorse this view at all, making it more or less clear* that Trelkovsky has invented all the evil he believes of his neighbors out of something like schizophrenia. Certainly, he's not a well man, and this manifests itself primarily in his increasing obsession with Simone and his need to become her: dressing in her clothes, eating at her cafรฉ, smoking her brand of cigarettes. Even his rather timorous affair with Simone's best friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani, wearing a powerfull uglifying pair of Coke bottle glasses) is a possible manifestation of Simone's lesbianic attraction to that woman. Trelkovsky has no real personal life of his own - his friends are simply the people he works with, with whom he has absolutely nothing in common - and it seems likely that he has no real sense of self. Taking Simone's apartment is his literal attempt to take her life, as well. None of this proves that he is insane, of course, but it doesn't really suggest that he has the sort of strength of will to stand up to even the slightest pressure from the outside world.

Certainly, it means that he is not a reliable narrator, and since the whole film is from his point-of-view, we have no means of knowing what is true and what is hallucination. From Trelkovsky's perceptions, it is undeniable that the people in the apartment building are capricious and destructive - but for a man so unsteady in the world as the character or his creator, all people are precisely those things. Perhaps their seeming efforts to trap him are legitimate, or perhaps they are the self-generated martyr fantasies of a lonely, crippled soul. At any rate, the final scenes are too fantastic to regard as anything but the ravings of a lost mind, and given that Trelkovsky ends up broken, it is perhaps the most sensible thing to assume he starts already on that road. Perhaps not. What matters is not the realism of things, but the fact that Trelkovsky ends up split in two, literally, in the film's final scene, where his transformation into Simon Choule is complete.

There is a recurrent motif of Egyptian hieroglyphics that remains unexplained in the film. Ancient Egyptian religious belief, it is important to note, was based on the notion that all things are the same all throughout history: not the same as Hinduism's conception that everything has happened before and will happen again, but more the belief that everything is always happening. The best I can come up with is to suppose that Trelkovsky, whether in his mind or in reality, is always the same as Simone. He does not become her, so much as we finally reach a point where the distinction between the two of them is no longer important. Either way, the result is the same: there is no Trelkovsky. To someone whose life had been as traumatic as Polanski's, that idea might well have been an attractive one.

The film itself expresses the same split personality as its hero. The Tenant was a US/French co-production, also known as La locataire, and it appears to have been shot roughly half in English, half in French - at any rate, the actors who do not speak English fluently have clearly been dubbed. I suppose the opposite is true in the French cut. There is no historic indication which is the "authoritative" version. Certainly, it's European-ness seems to outweigh it's American-ness, but that is a wholly subjective sort of argument to make.

The film manages to achieve exactly what the director desired, I have not doubt; and that is what makes it very wearying to watch. There's not doubt that it's well-crafted, and every single frame tells a story, whether of schizophrenia (mirrors are found throughout the film, used with the precision of a scalpel) or of inscrutability (the film is also full of shadows, wielded by one of the cinema's greatest poets of light and dark, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to suggest the darkness of Trelkovsky's self-awareness), and on the level of sheer craft it's a delight to let the film wash over you.

But owing to the very same personal urgency that makes it a masterpiece, it is overwhelmingly solipsistic and ultimately alienating. Trelkovsky/Polanski's head is a forbidding place to be for very long, and in the end there's nothing to take away from the film other than a primal scream of anxiety and fear. I could find no way "in" to The Tenant, finding it a brilliant character study that nevertheless provided nothing that affected me on a personal level. Perhaps that's a good thing: understanding the abyss inside Trelkovsky is already disturbing far beyond what the cinema is usually capable of, and finding common cause with that abyss would be a terror the likes of which I do not wish to conceive. I am not Trelkovsky, nor am I Polanski, and the two hours I spent fathoming their minds make me very glad for that to be the case.