Questions of Home in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant
by Lily Ekimian
The other day I came across a little green badge for sale in a bookshop that read: “No person is illegal.” The badge, welcoming refugees, showed a silhouetted family linking arms, fleeing some present danger. It instantly reminded me of a bit of graffiti I read on a wall down at the Aberdeen beach not a day before – a slur, directed at Eastern European immigrants, telling them to go “home.” Quite naturally I was bothered by the disconnect, between welcoming refugees and demonising immigrants, but more so I was bothered by that word: “home.” Does someone not get to choose where they call home? What makes a person spray-painting hate onto some wall thinking him or herself any more deserving than the people to whom that hate is directed? What kind of fear and confusion must that person feel to hate so blindly and, more chillingly, what must it be like to receive that hate?
These questions are central to Roman Polanski’s often overlooked 1976 film, The Tenant. The film follows Polish immigrant Trelkovsky, played by Polanski himself, who is looking for a new apartment in Paris. Trelkovsky is indeed a French citizen but, coming from Poland, is not treated as such. He finds an apartment, recently made vacant as the result of the previous tenant’s attempted suicide (and subsequent death in the hospital). Despite some kind, if not cold, words from his new landlord, Trelkovsky is almost immediately viewed with suspicion by neighbours. Trelkovsky’s new life in the building acts as a microcosm for his life as an immigrant in France, the biggest threat to his stability being that of eviction. He is polite and introverted; quietly he slips in and out of the apartment building, as though hoping to go unnoticed, and he tiptoes around his apartment, afraid to disturb his neighbours (many of whom have already complained about both him and other foreign tenants). But with eviction petitions and rumours of misconduct swirling about the building, Trelkovsky becomes increasingly paranoid.
The other conflict Trelkovsky faces is forced conformity. He feels that he is being made to become the apartment’s previous tenant, Simone Choule. Without his asking, and against his preference, he is given her order at a nearby café, her preferred brand of cigarettes, and even the mail she continues to receive after her death; indeed, Trelkovsky’s anguished refrain throughout the film is, “I am not Simone Choule!”. To conform, in the way he feels he is forced to do, is impossible, but to not conform is to subject himself to further suspicion and mistrust; he is trapped in a cruel system that does not allow for his success. Polanski takes this idea of forced conformity to an extreme with several bizarre, shocking, and disturbing scenes that are executed with confidence in both his directing and acting, elevating them beyond simply being ridiculous.
Jewish and half-French himself, Roman Polanski was raised in Poland during World War II and narrowly escaped the Holocaust as a child. With this in mind, one may view The Tenant as not necessarily seeking to reflect the mindset of all immigrants but more specifically as confronting, with such striking honesty, Polanski’s own feelings of being out of place. Even so, The Tenant shows the horrible paradox of impossible conformity that returns us to that notion of home, and who gets to decide where it is.