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A Slip Into Madness Polanski-style: Repulsion v The Tenant

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[This post contains spoilers and is intended for discussion among those who have seen both films]


I watched for the first time this week Roman Polanski's 1976 "The Tenant," and was left mystified.


It seemed obvious to me viewing the film that this was a return to the subject matter of his his 1965 film, "Repulsion," where we follow a delicate character's descent into madness.


"Repulsion" follows the timid female lead "Carol" played by a young Catherine Deneuve, who is barely functional to begin with but circumstances result in her being left alone for a few days and she goes over the edge. Pretty strait forward story. The elegance of the film comes from the backdrop of Deneuve's striking beauty and sexual appeal played ironically against her extreme male repulsion. Polanski twice shows us a photo of her as a pre-pubescent child with her family where her countenance presages her madness. Is she looking at her father in the photo? Was she a victim of sexual abuse? Is that a hint?


In "The Tenant," our lead is masculine and is played by Polanski himself, and he holds his own as an actor.


In common with the Character of Carol in "Repulsion," Polanski's portrayal of 'Trelkovski' looks small like a boy compared to everyone around him and is polite and meek.


But, where the story of Carol in "Repulsion" is simple enough, our experiences with Trelkovski in "The Tenant" is anything but simple or linear. True to the novel on which the novel is based, Trelkovski feels drawn into a conspiracy of some sort and becomes paranoid. Unlike the book, the conspiracy is mostly dropped as a plot driver and it is the madness of the character that runs the show and Trelkovski turns to cross-dressing (but only in private) as a way to protect himself. Unlike Carol, he never hurts anyone but himself in the film. Or does he?


This one left me perplexed and thinking about what story Polanski might be telling in "The Tenant." Who is Trelkovski and how do we understand his behavior? I have some ideas, specifically regarding his madness:


A few hints and questions from the film:


1. The film opens with Trelkovski arriving to inquire about a vacancy for an apartment who's tenant is in a hospital in dire condition after a (suicidal?) fall out her apartment window. Everyone is perplexed how Trelkovski even knows that the apartment might come open as the tenant isn't even dead and her plummet was only a few days prior. Trelkovski elusively answers that he heard it from "A friend," but as the story unfolds, Trelkovski doesn't have much in the way of a large social circle.



2. Why does Trelkovski go to the hospital to visit the prior tenant, a person he never met? What induces the patient to scream so during the visit. Was she reacting to her friend, Stella, or Trelkovski? At the moment, the screaming seems to start is when Stella starts talking to the patient. Later in the film, Stella indicates that the patient was looking at Trelkovski when she started to scream. Why?


3. Trelkovski's paranoid state reaches critical status when he is alone in the apartment. Why does he turn to cross-dressing?



Okay, so interpretation guesses:


Whereas Carol in "Repulsion" was a ticking time bomb which we get to see go off, Trelkovski was a bomb that has already gone off when we join the narrative. The madness as portrayed in "The Tenant" is much more akin to that of Norman Bates in "Psycho."



Trelkovski knows about the apartment because he is the one who threw the previous tenant out the window, he visits her in the hospital because he knew her, she screams because he is the one who attempted to kill her, and he finds the tooth because he is the one who put it there. The memories are just repressed, a la, Norman Bates.



Trelkovski's journey is regressive, he is making a reverse journey back to the womb. His small size makes him look like a boy throughout the film. He acts like a boy among bigger, more gruff adults by whom he is surrounded. His theater groping with Stella that is not consummated is pure adolescence. Stella herself assumes a maternal response to his state of mind. Finally, Trelkovski becomes the maternal figure inside of which he hides from his threats.


This female character is Trelkovski's villain as he kills her twice (three times if you count the first unsuccessful jump), he dresses as her and kills himself and he kills the prior tenant who is this personification as well. Who is she, his mother?



Polanski abandons exploring the apparent conspiracy in which Trelkovski becomes involved, and instead favors chalking the conspiracy up to his madness. The character runs from his madness by regressing at first to boyhood (where we join him) and then in a return to the womb (cross dressing as a mother figure) and then finally to kill them both.



Is this whacked, or am I onto something?



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It's not whacked. We do have a discussion about The Tenant here.

Ah, this brings up a topic that I have been wondering about. I have only been on these forums for a few weeks. Love the site.



I really like to discuss movie themes and meanings, interpret the intended message of the film maker and compare those elements to other films, as I have done here.



However, for individual films, there is no common board where threads are listed most recent to old. To make a post about an individual film, one has to search for the film. Once a post is made, from what I can tell, there is no indication to the rest of the community that the post has been made and the only way the post will be discovered by other members is if they happen to search for the same film, which for a film like "The Tenant" would probably be years.



For "The Tenant" thread that is linked, for instance, the most recent post is from 2018 and most of the posts are from 2009. If I had posted my comparison of Repulsion and The Tenant in that thread, what are the chances that it would be found and responded to in the next year?


The way the forum is structured as I understand it, making posts about individual films, especially older and lesser known film, is just a form of mental masturbation in a bathroom stall in the sense that posting there is not really made for discussion because there is no way of notifying potential interested forum members that the post has been made.


If I am wrong and there is notification of new posts for individual film discussion, I'd be very happy to know about it. .



Now, if there was a front board for individual film posts with new posts listed in order of recency, then that would promote readership and discussion.



I don't mean to be a rules breaker by posting about an individual film on this board, but this is the only board that has active discussion, which is kinda why I post... It is a conundrum.



Ah, this brings up a topic that I have been wondering about. I have only been on these forums for a few weeks. Love the site.
Thanks! Which I'm saying even knowing what's coming.

However, for individual films, there is no common board where threads are listed most recent to old. To make a post about an individual film, one has to search for the film. Once a post is made, from what I can tell, there is no indication to the rest of the community that the post has been made and the only way the post will be discovered by other members is if they happen to search for the same film, which for a film like "The Tenant" would probably be years.
For "The Tenant" thread that is linked, for instance, the most recent post is from 2018 and most of the posts are from 2009. If I had posted my comparison of Repulsion and The Tenant in that thread, what are the chances that it would be found and responded to in the next year?
When you reply in an old topic, it is "bumped" back to the top of the forum it's in. Each forum, by default, displays not the most recently created topics, but the most recently updated ones. So in that sense, starting a new topic and replying to an old one result, at least in a technical sense, in the exact same level of visibility.

A lot of people (me, for one) also find new posts by hitting the "New Posts" link in the header, which shows all the topics updated since the user's last visit. There's also a Today's Posts option, which shows up if there are no new posts for that user, where you can see every topic that's been replied to in the last 24 hours. There's also (this is small) just a running ticker of all the most recently posted in topics on the forum's home page (on the right).

Now, there is also a feature where each film has its own page, and you can post topics FROM that page that exist outside of this forum structure (but still show up in it in various ways). That's a newer feature that's still being integrated. Not sure if that's actually what you meant or not.

Also, as Mark just did, tagging me is the best way to ensure I see something, since I don't necessarily read each thread/post. Always happy to answer questions and/or take feedback. You can post new topics in the Movie Forums Site Stuff forum and I'll almost definitely see those, though, within a day or so.