From Novel to Film pt. 24: The Tenant

Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976) is an almost verbatim translation of its source material (Roland Topor's book, first published in 1964.) There's a slight change to the ending, but almost everything leading up to it is reproduced faithfully and with great precision.

This being the case, there's little point in looking at each work separately, so I'll dispense with the usual From Novel to Film respective sections. 

Roland Topor is best-known to me as the co-creator of Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage, 1973, a movie I've always loved.) The Tenant was the first thing I've ever read by him. He along with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal co-founded the Panic Movement. There's little of the aggressive confrontation of the Panic Movement in The Tenant, but a great deal of surrealist wit. 

The plot, as excerpted from here

"(The Tenant is) the story of Trelkovsky, a mild-mannered and discrete man who moves into a new apartment following the suicide of its previous tenant. Initially pleased with his new digs, the tenant soon becomes incredibly anxious about the noise complaints he receives from his neighbors." 

"A social gathering nearly provokes his upstairs neighbor to violence while even moving a piece of furniture is enough to illicit a symphony of wall-banging from neighbors on all sides. Consumed by guilt and fear of being thrown into the street, the tenant cuts himself off from friends and starts to descend into a state of complete paranoia about how he is perceived by fellow tenants." 

"This paranoia rapidly spirals out of control and the tenant descends into madness as his identity and that of the previous tenant start to bleed into one another, resulting in hallucinations and fantasies that become increasingly bizarre and grotesque until the book reaches a final and bloody denouement."

"What right has my head to call itself me?"

Ulrich Behrens reviewed the film for Filmzentrale

"The film's title could be interpreted as follows: An alien is given the chance to rent an apartment for himself in a well-ordered world, however he may be evicted at any given time once the natives find him to be in violation of this world's well-ordered rules, or failing to properly internalize them." 

"In the end, it is of little importance who is normal and who is insane. The individual's paranoia equals our well-ordered world's desire to persecute." 

"Nobody can help Trelkovsky - he can't even help himself. In a disenchanted, jaded world with its fixed social order, the individual and one's autonomy have but one fate: Either submission and internalization of people's rules - or insanity. Which is no real choice. Here, the individual is always on the brink of annihilation, about to lose itself." 

Trelkovsky's predicament (and his reaction to it) is contrasted with the swagger of his friend Scope. When Scope brings him back to his apartment, he plays a record of marching band music loud enough to provoke his neighbor to come over and ask him to turn it down, whereupon Scope harangues the man, practically striking him. Throughout it all, he keeps telling Trelkovsky, "That's how you deal with people like that."

In the movie, Bernard Fresson plays this scene (as Scope) in the film with considerable flourish, strutting around his apartment and mimicking the horns of the marching band music (which has a nationalistic flavor.) It didn't screencap well enough to include, but take my word for it.

The immigration theme overrides all others, for my money. This is clearly a metaphorical treatment of the plight of the immigrant - in France, specifically, but the West in general. He is constantly blamed for his own condition and even persecuted when crimes are committed against him, all to enforce a mental double-bind of "the other" that will prevent him from ever fully assimilating.  

Even the panhandlers take advantage of him.
When he is robbed, he is told not to report it. For his own good, naturally. "People who get involved with the police are always regarded with suspicion."

His troubles begin in earnest the second he makes his neighbors aware of his presence, but they escalate only when he refuses to sign a petition to have another immigrant-neighbor removed. He becomes a silent observer under siege.

This alienation from both himself and his surroundings takes the form of an obsession with refuse - of his own and his neighbors - and body waste.

He was going to have to justify himself again, to explain everything he did, to ask forgiveness for the mere fact that he was alive! He was going to have say something like: look at me, I'm not worthy of your anger, I'm nothing but a dumb animal who can't prevent the noisy symptoms of his decay, so don't waste your time with me, don't dirty your hands by hitting me, just try to put up with the fact that I exist. I'm not asking you to like me, I know that that's impossible, because I'm not likeable, but at least do me the kindness of not despising me.

As you can see from all of these screencaps, Roman Polanski plays the part of Trelkovsky.

He was an actor in his youth, so it's probably not a big surprise to discover he's quite capable of carrying the film all by himself. It's a demanding role: he has to  credibly unravel slowly but surely while not losing the audience.

He almost does in one scene, where he slaps a crying boy in the park. A troubling (and sign-pointing/underlining) scene in both novel and film.
Polanski's performance is anchored considerably by Isabelle Adjani, who plays Stella.

Stella and Trelkovsky's relationship is complicated. She is, allegedly, an old friend of Simone Choule, who is the original tenant of the apartment. He meets her at Simone's bedside and pretends to also be a friend. He comforts her and takes her to a movie where, somewhat jarringly, they begin a sexual relationship.

Later he runs into her out and about with her friends, and he joins their party. He ends up going home with her but is too preoccupied with his own doubts on true identity (expressed matter-of-factly but still abstractly) to perform sexually.

Is she in on the plot to ruin Trelkovsky's mind? Or is she just a free spirit who tried to help? It's never deliberately stated. Neither for that matter is the whole issues of Trelkovsky's mind altogether. Take this, which occurs after he leaves Simone the first time they meet:

He could hear the birds. There was always one that began the concert, and then all the others joined in. Truthfully speaking, it was not really a concert. If you listened to it carefully, it was impossible not to notice the resemblance between this sound and that of a saw. A saw whose teeth were tearing painfully into wood. Trelkovsky had never understood why people insisted on comparing the noise of birds to music. Birds don't sing, they scream. And in the morning they scream in chorus.

Is this merely an eccentric aside, or the first indication that the events depicted are at least as filtered through an already cracked sensibility? 

The film emphasizes this, making it clear that "what is actually happening" is never an absolute known.

As mentioned in that Ruthless Culture review, "The Tenant does not mourn Trelkovsky’s descent into madness, it looks on and acknowledges how silly it all is." 

Stella's occupation is an Egyptologist of some sort, or at least an author of an Egyptology reference book. I wasn't sure what to make of them, but these motifs are a continuous unexplained presence in both novel and film. 

Up to and including the mummy-like figure of Simone in the hospital/ across the courtyard.

"They are trying to turn me into Simone Choule." 

Trelkovsky becomes convinced his neighbors murdered Simone and are now plotting against him. He decides that if their plan is to transform him into the woman she was, then he will do it himself, before they can. He will walk willingly into their trap so that he can escape it.

Certainly Polanski's work explores questions of sexual identity and gender, and this is no exception. But again through the immigration lens: what might it mean to insist, perversely, that an outsider adopt the manners, cigarette habits, diet, and dress of a middle-aged native woman? And punish him when he does not? I suggest this is actually the point of what we see here. Both Topor and Polanski knew firsthand the hurdles faced by immigrants assimilating in a new land - and specifically those faced by Polish-Jews who have to constantly remind the natives that they are in fact French citizens - and this is a litany of surreal observation and criticism of the demands placed upon him/her.

The end is a slight change from the book. In the latter, Trelkovsky barricades himself in and observes a bizarre ritual in the courtyard with all the cast of characters, and an executioner and a man on a horse. 

This is compartmentalized in the film to one (magnificent) scene where all the tenants, and Stella too, dressed as if at the opera, are applauding and urging Trelkovsky to jump, as Simone does.
Which he does.

In the novel, it is the neighbors who overcome and hurl his body through the glass. The film, after the first gruesome plunge, they gather around his body in horror and try to get him to sit and wait for an ambulance. But he sees them as ghouls -

and to defy them, he crawls in agony back to the same ledge and jumps all over again.

If this came out today, I feel there might be only one interpretation: "Cisgenders force Trans to reject herself and commit suicide by penetrating The Glass Ceiling." I'm half-kidding, but only half.   

Both film and novel end with Simone and a man who looks like Trelkovsky visiting a mummified figure in the bed, but this time from the patient's pov:
The End.

It's a Polanski film so of course the whole thing is fantastic-looking. Interiors, exteriors, close-ups, long shots, everything. 

Final Verdict: The book is great - if you enjoy this sort of surrealist allegory. It's probably more accessible than something like The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (or Ulysses by James Joyce) but it parks its voiture in the same garage. The movie is likewise great and with the same caveat. As an adaptation, it's a close and generous realization of the book onscreen.


  1. I'd never even heard of this movie, but it sounds terrific. As I believe I mentioned in your "Rosemary's Baby" review, I'm quite weak on Polanski, which is an error to be corrected one of these days.

    I think my favorite Polanski performance is when he played Dominic Greene in "Quantum of Solace." He was understated, but effective.

  2. I never heard of this Polanski out either. Chalk up one more item on my "To Watch" list.

    While I've never seen this film, for some strange reason my mind insists that I've heard of it somewhere before, either in a work like Danse Macabre or something like that.

    What I find particularly interesting is that the author/creator of "Fantastic Planet made this story, and that he belonged to the same movement as Jodorowsky. I've heard "Savage" described as the true exemplar of the spirit of "Heavy Metal" magazine more than the "Heavy Metal" movie of the same name. It's hard to find good background material for the "Metal Hurlant" zine. Yet a good overview of "Fantastic Planet can be found here:


    Also, a good BBC documentary, "In Search of Moebius" can be found here:



    1. Ah, Moebius. I've got the whole run of Blueberry lined up (and even have the 'Renegade' movie they made from it) for one of these days.

      Given how literally translated Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant are, it's made me want to add The Ninth Gate to this From Novel to Film series. How literal an adaptation is that one, I wonder? I've seen the film three or four times but never read the book. Actually, that goes for the rest of his movies, too - no idea if they're based on books or what. Hmm.