The Tenant is one of Roman Polanskis least recognised films. It is a return to Repulsion territory. There is much in common between the character of Trelkovsky that Polanski himself plays here and Catherine Deneuves Carol in Repulsion both characters are foreigners living in another country and both are paranoid and subjective films set in large apartment blocks where it seems that the walls of the apartment equal the walls of the protagonists mind as Polanski blurs in and out of madness, leaving us unable to be sure what is real or what is an hallucination being perceived by the protagonist. The Tenant also makes an interesting film to read in term of Roman Polanskis own life he, like the character he plays, is a Pole who went to live in Paris very shortly after the film was made. His other horror films Repulsion, Rosemarys Baby like The Tenant, see the apartment as a home of paranoia and madness. You could extend the analogy further and compare Repulsion, Rosemarys Baby and The Tenant to Polanskis The Pianist, where Adrien Brodys protagonist, a Jew living in Poland under Nazi occupation, is reduced to hiding a pitiful, starving existence hiding in cubbyholes and the bombed-out ruins of buildings where he cannot be sure whether the people he encounters are friend or foe or will betray him. Polanski himself grew up in the Warsaw ghettos as a Jewish child under the Nazi occupation and survived by hiding in the countryside and with other families after his parents were taken to the concentration camps, so perhaps one can see the very personal nature of the recurrent themes of isolation, paranoia and the feeling that the apartment is an alien world in his work.
There is a compulsive atmosphere to The Tenant. The oppressive grey surroundings of the apartments and the fanatical concerns about silence from the other tenants contain a genuine claustrophobia. The scheming plots over matters of extraordinary pettiness and inexplicable conspiracies that go on among the neighbours to gang up on others make The Tenant probably the first Kafka-esque horror film. The shocks that Polanski envisions are vivid and scary the sudden eerie zoom in on the bathroom across the courtyard as the mummified figure removes its bandages to reveal the face of dead Dominique Poulange; or the ball lit from beneath bouncing up and down outside the window that suddenly turns into a human head. There is an inexorable feel to the film as Polanski, in the same way that he placed us inside Catherine Deneuves mind in Repulsion, takes us along with Trelkovsky as his entire identity is seemingly subsumed, to eventually arrive at a haunting twist ending.
The film also falters somewhat. The paranoia theme is beautifully conveyed but the images of Roman Polanski prancing about in drag, strangling himself and talking in falsetto to one of his high-heel shoes are exceedingly silly. The film teeters between a superbly paranoid and oppressive atmosphere and these somewhat risible moments that drag us out of it. Nor is Roman Polanski quite right in casting himself in the central role he seems too perky and not mousy enough for the part. However, Isabelle Adjani, Shelley Winters and Melvyn Douglas are all good, forsaking star allure to turn in convincingly downbeat roles.
The film is based on La Locataire Chimerique (1964), a novel by the satirist Roland Topor, who was also a Polish émigré who lived in France. Throughout his life, Roland Topor worked as a novelist, film writer, actor and stage director. He was part of the Panic avant garde theatre movement in Paris in the 1960s, along with other luminaries such as Arrabal (Viva La Muerte) and Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of El Topo (1970). On film, Topor wrote several surreal animated short films for Rene Laloux, Les Temps Morts (Dead Times) (1966), a satire about death in culture, and Les Escargots (The Snails) (1965) about an invasion of giant snails, and then the animated sf feature film Fantastic Planet (1973). Topor also co-wrote the German film Die Hamburger Krankheit (The Hamburg Illness) (1979), a political satire about the release of a virus. Topor also made acting appearances in Maurizio Nichettis comic satire Ratataplan (1979) and as Renfield in Werner Herzogs Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); as well as writing and art directing Marquis (1989), a hilariously obscene puppet retelling of the Marquis de Sade story.
The premise of the tenant made paranoid and losing grip on their sanity and/or surrounded by strange neighbours has appeared in a number of other films subsequently. The influence of The Tenant can be found in works such as Apartment Zero (1988), The Apartment Complex (1999), Fever (1999), The 4th Floor (1999), One Point 0/Paranoia 1.0 (2004) and Next Door (2005).
French language trailer here you get more of the mood of the film with this one:-