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Spotlight on: Roman Polanski's Apartment Trilogy
Rosemary's Baby
The Tenant

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Roman Polanski's Apartment Trilogy
Repulsion (1965)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
The Tenant (1976)
One could easily get the impression from his films that director Roman Polanski does not recommend apartment life. Three of his films, forming an unofficial trilogy, concern characters — apartment dwellers all — who variously succumb to different kinds of insanity.

In Repulsion, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a young Belgian manicurist, lives with her sister and her sister's fiancee in a London apartment. The couple go away on a vacation, leaving Carol alone in the flat. While they are away, Carol begins hallucinating that she is not alone in the apartment. A man appears in her dressing mirror for a split second then disappears. Hands reach out from the walls and molest her. She is unable to function otherwise, forgetting to eat and leaving food out to rot.

This culminates in a rape sequence where Polanski hints at the reality by including only the "real" sounds — a clock ticking, Carol's own breathing and heartbeat, and the rustle of the sheets as she fights her "attacker." The trauma of this experience completes Carol's break with reality. When a friend later calls on her, concerned that she hasn't been to work, she takes him for an intruder.

Upon viewing Repulsion, many psychologists commended Polanski's accurate depiction of schizophrenia. They were surprised when Polanski admitted that he and co-screenwriter Gerard Brach had simply written Carol's behavior as a natural response to the circumstances. They had done no research.

Catherine Deneuve's performance carries the film beyond what could have been exploitation into the realm of classic. Combined with Polanski's insight and careful direction, Repulsion is a psychological horror masterpiece.

Based on the bestselling Ira Levin novel, Rosemary's Baby — Polanski's first Hollywood film — is a relatively faithful adaptation of the tale of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes), their new home, and their adventures in babymaking.

Moving into their new apartment, Rosemary and Guy meet their upstairs neighbors: Roman Castevet and his wife, Minnie (Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon). The Castevets make the Woodhouses feel right at home. They also make themselves at home at the Woodhouses' apartment, giving advice and becoming the young couple's friends.

The first clue in Rosemary's Baby that things are not going as expected comes when Rosemary dreams that she is raped by a demon. She wakes to find that Guy had sex with her while she slept. She turns out to be pregnant, so this is passed off as good news. Immediately, the Castevets put themselves in control of her term, giving her a malodorous amulet, and making her drink a homemade "health" concoction. They even go so far as to recommend their own doctor, a man called Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy).

When the blessed day comes, the baby, called Adrian, is never actually shown. Any questions are left to be answered by the audience's own preconceptions, particularly those posed by Rosemary's first look at the baby:

"What have you done to it? What have you done to its eyes?" she cries.
"He has his father's eyes," Roman answers.
"What are you talking about?! Guy's eyes are normal! What have you done to him? You maniacs!"
Roman trumpets, "Satan is his father, not Guy. He came up from hell and begat a son of mortal woman. ... He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples. He shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured.... Hail, Satan!"
It's over the top, to be sure, but it fits the mood. With Rosemary's Baby, Polanski created another classic of the horror genre; it manages to be subtle yet stunning. The performances are excellent all around, but Mia Farrow is particularly effective as she displays the myriad emotions of a new mother wanting to protect and care for her baby, but powerless to stop the snowballing events. (She also sings the wordless lullaby-like theme played over the opening credits, setting a tone combining eerieness with innocence from the beginning.)

Polanski himself plays the lead character in The Tenant, the final movie in this ad hoc trilogy. It is the story of Trelkovsky, a Polish-born French citizen (like Polanski) who lucks into an apartment because the previous occupant jumped out the window. She is still in the hospital when he jumps at the room, having heard of it from a friend.

Soon, everyone in town learns that he is renting this room, and Trelkovsky begins to believe they are conspiring to turn him into her. When he goes to the local coffee shop, he orders coffee but the man asks him if he would like hot cocoa instead, as that is what she would have ordered. When he asks for his brand of cigarettes, he says they are out of stock and would he like Marlboro (her brand) instead. At first, he accepts reluctantly but after many days of this, becomes understandably hostile.

Eventually, Trelkovsky does begin to assume her qualities, while denying this vehemently. He dresses in her clothes, buys a wig, puts on make-up, and eventually attempts suicide by jumping out the same window she did — twice — all the time screaming at the other tenants that they will not get him. An interesting portrait. Polanski also manages to poke fun at himself in The Tenant by becoming the helpless woman archetype portrayed in the previous two films.

Obviously not for all tastes, The Tenant was not well received upon its first release, but it is my favorite of all of Polanski's films because of its layered storytelling and quirky mood. Plus, Polanski the actor has an engaging personality that immediately elicits empathy. The movie has gained a cult following in the intervening years that is likely to grow as more people discover this little-known film.

(Interestingly enough, both The Tenant and Repulsion are portraits of psychological disintegration via paranoid schizophrenia. Rosemary's Baby takes its protagonist through exactly the same steps, and could be seen in the same light, except that the external events in this case are, in fact, real, unlike the other two, which are a product of the disease. In all three cases, the characters are acting crazy and it is only because Rosemary is actually the target of persecution that we don't see her as insane just like them. A small difference, generally speaking, but a huge one in terms of our perception.)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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