Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy & The Claustrophobic Architecture Of Self

Throughout the month of March, Audiences Everywhere will be sharing appreciation for film trilogies, including personal reflections from our writers on some of their favorites. Today, we’re discussing Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy.

Paramount Pictures

As a raw medium for displaying our psyches, horror is pushed by trends that first pull from the sociopolitical climate of their inception and ride that wave until it’s no longer lucrative or immediately applicable. Because of this, horror subgenres have always enjoyed a natural ebb and flow. “Apartment horror” was a powerful–and then overused–subgenre of the ’60s and ’70s in such films as The Sentinel, Shivers, and Wait Until Dark. The term refers, obviously, to horror that takes place in or around an apartment complex and often features a protagonist in psychological distress.

Roman Polanski, during what some would consider the peak of his career, created three terrific examples unofficially referred to as The Apartment Trilogy. These three films deal with characters facing a Kafkaesque paranoia and madness inside of their homes and center their fear around cerebral, atmospheric horror. Unlike a significant amount of horror films, a fear of death is secondary in every instance. For someone with an interest in the acceptance of death, what resonates most is the fear that exists in living, the kind that works itself into our thoughts when we’re alone. The Apartment Trilogy’s compact settings and sparse number of characters let the writing and acting be the cleaver, with performances that require more than a competent take on human emotion and a strong presence on screen. With Polanski, the apartment is not just a cheap shooting location or a means to an end; in nearly every case the apartment becomes a character in itself, its close boundaries mirroring the boundaries of each character that, no matter how clearly defined, are continuously breached. While each film shares this common thread, their differences set them apart as three distinct and timeless additions to the genre.

Repulsion (1965)

Royal Films International

Polanski considers Repulsion, the first of the Apartment Trilogy, his most disappointing film despite its surprising success. In commentary he is quick to point out its flaws and what he would do differently or scrap altogether for not meeting his artistic standards, neatly assessing his own work as with a scalpel. Polanski is a precise director with every frame, action and word spoken. His largest acknowledged issue is with Repulsion’s pacing, and some will find it a little too slow. Even so, this  project on the tails of his Oscar-nominated Knife on the Water shows his early eye for detail and realism, and an enormous instinctive understanding of the human experience.

Repulsion features a woman affronted by men and sex, left in isolation to battle the trauma of her mind. Catherine Deneuve is cool fire as Carol, a young French woman living in London and working at a beauty salon. Behind her doe-like eyes, she’s hiding a burdened psyche dealing with the remnants of past trauma. Carol exhibits her state of mind with her body like a canvas: biting her nails, languidly staring into space, and frequently brushing invisible blemishes and dirt away. It’s obvious right away that men are the trigger for her odd behaviour and it becomes clear that she walks in the devastating aftermath of sexual abuse. Three times we see a family photograph of Carol looking wanly at a male figure, perhaps insinuating that she’s been the victim of molestation by a family member, a grave injustice and deep scar in her life. It would suggest then that Carol’s boundaries have not only been crossed but that her mechanism for setting them comes from a place of fear.

A woman with a face like Deneuve’s is subject to all manner of men’s insistent cloying and she plays her role with a strong sense of that understanding. Whether she’s politely ignoring cat-calls on the street or rebuffing an obtusely pushy suitor, she does it with the same sad, tired grace women have developed over the ages. Carol is docile and childlike around men, avoiding eye contact while repeatedly denying their advances. Unfortunately it seems every man in her vicinity wants something from her and they’ll go to varying lengths to get it. None of them take her words seriously and completely overlook her body language when she visibly recoils from their touch. While Carol is temporarily able to escape the men who approach her outside, from time to time she must contend with one inside the apartment she shares with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Ferneaux). Helen’s lover Michael is married but acts no better than the bachelors in the bar who scheme about Carol’s virginity and share sexual exploits. Colin, Carol’s stalker, meets with his friends to speak crudely about women, sharing conquests and advice on getting women to spread their legs. In contrast, the women cry, console and give each other conflicting advice: “There’s only one way to deal with men, treat them like you don’t give a damn about them.” Any time one of them has a problem, the other assumes it’s because of a man–and most of the time, it is. Michael purposely overlooks Helen’s desire to call the shots, hands her cash like a harlot and evades her earnest inquiries of when she’ll see him again. Carol is absolutely repulsed by the man and upset to find his belongings in the bathroom. She is mortified to be a witness to his and her sister’s sexual encounters, tossing and turning in bed disturbed by moans of pleasure. Though she is unable to communicate this discomfort, she will receive some respite when the lovers travel for a couple of weeks leaving the apartment solely to Carol.

It is this period of isolation that causes Carol to lose all sense of safety and calm. Early in the film, looking off-screen Carol remarks “We must get this crack mended.” Perhaps a heavy-handed metaphor, cracks appear repeatedly throughout, and not just in Carol’s mind. She steps over them in the pavement and watches as they grow in her surroundings. While she is unraveling, men continue to push past her physical and emotional boundaries to their own horror. Shortly after she’s left alone, her thoughts bend in the isolation to horrifying hallucinations, flashbacks, paranoia, and eventually murder. Carol’s only moment of true relief is in shared laughter with a coworker when she’s at work, but her time at the salon is cut short after she maims a client in her near-catatonic state and is sent home. By this time, home is no haven. It’s a mess, with flies encircling a rotten rabbit meant for dinner and potatoes about to get up and walk out of the kitchen. Carol doesn’t notice her environment except in vivid hallucinations of hands reaching through walls and groping her body as the apartment heaves and shifts, opening in sections and transforming before her eyes. The sounds of the building warp in her mind until she barricades herself in with paranoia. Whether it’s flashbacks of her past, her stalker or the lecherous landlord, Carol is still subject to an assault on the boundaries of her home, her body, and her mind. As the rabbit corpse decomposes we watch as Carol’s mental condition mirrors the process, though she notices neither. What she is driven to do almost seems half reasonable by the end. Exhausted by the events of her life and by trying to stay sane, when Carol is found nearly comatose there is a blessed moment nobody wants to touch her. She has found a means of temporary escape but with a remarkably high cost.

Traditionally, space is an important factor in Polanski’s effort to display madness.  Cinematographer Gil Taylor is praised primarily for his natural use of lighting, using it to properly draw the eye, add depth, and also to bring dread. He focuses on Deneuve’s eyes, which “like a horse are wide and full of fear.” As Carol deteriorates, the focal lens is extended to widen perspective. This, combined with a modifiable set, causes the interior of the apartment to grow and shrink around her. A heavy use of low shots invites distortion of the setting and those who work within it. In this way the apartment becomes a character in the film itself. The walls turn to putty, hands stretch and break through menacingly. With its restrictive budget the crew frequently had to improvise, purchasing sheets of Durex latex from the local condom factory for the unforgettable practical effects seen in the hallways. Never one to leave out a sense of horror, Polanski relies heavily on the soundtrack and atmospheric sounds throughout the film. Each sound is crystal clear and plays a precise role in Carol’s mind. As time passes the walls continuously crack and she’s surrounded by maddening sounds: dripping faucets, clocks ticking, the building creaking and sighing. The apartment is filled with the buzzing of flies and each time she is abused, the nearby convent bells or atmospheric sounds ring deafeningly. As Carol wanders the streets twitching and compulsively touching her face there’s a nerve-wracking executioner’s percussion contrasted only by distant, dismal piano as she wanders around the apartment. Repulsion ends as it begins, with a frighteningly close shot of Carol’s eye reminding us again that anything we have seen is from her perspective and filtered through her feelings and madness. It’s unclear how much of her terror is a product of her own mind, an idea Polanski explores in three different ways throughout the trilogy.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys Baby

Paramount Pictures

Rosemary’s Baby is the most recognized and universally seen third of the apartment trilogy. Besides The Pianist, it’s likely the most accessible and enduring work of Polanski’s career. This smart horror film served as his first screenplay adaptation of a novel, staying close to author Ira Levin’s source material. Young Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) are in the market for a new home and Rosemary, like any young woman with an eye, is completely in love with the character and history-rich Bramford building. Of course, the old bones of the apartment come with a checkered history shared only in half-serious dinner conversation and hushed tones. The Gothic building’s dark stories and hidden histories haunt its halls, bringing it to life. Despite these secrets and a good friend’s warnings, Guy and Rosemary are charmed and move into the apartment as soon as possible. Rosemary can’t be blamed. The apartment really is incredible. With her interior decorating skills she turns it into veritable showpiece in which to live her fantasy life in until the story takes its dark turn.

Guy is a budding actor quietly obsessed with success and fame. Rosemary is a hyper-supportive Good Wife who busies herself with redecorating and dreams of having babies. Everyone else in the building is just a little bit strange and overbearing. The adjacent neighbours often heard through the wall are a classic older couple, Roman and Minnie Castavet, who insist on being helpful and inviting themselves around whenever possible. Ruth Gordon deservedly received an Oscar for her role as Minnie, cultivating a much-needed comic relief. Each exaggerated mannerism is perfect, whether she’s pursing her lips in disapproval or crossing every social boundary Rosemary constructs in vain. Her caricature of a nosy performance reaches to some distant memory of a woman not quite like her, the kind your mother sighed about, the one peeping through the curtains or listening to your calls. After the mysterious suicide of a young woman the Castavets took in, Rosemary becomes their next project. Her polite manner and hesitancy to offend does her no favours, especially when Guy shows a special interest in the couple. From then on every knock and holler through the door causes Rosemary to stiffen.

Satisfied in the progress of his career and his own goals, Guy suggests that it might be time to have a baby. This thrills Rosemary, and after eating a chalky chocolate “mouse” care of Minnie (surreptitiously throwing most of it away) she falls into a terrifying hallucinatory dream where she envisions being raped by the devil himself. She’s expected to pay no mind to this, as really she’s been raped by her husband who told her he had his way while she was passed out so he didn’t miss the baby-making window. This time Rosemary’s boundaries are decimated not only by her neighbours but by her own husband. Despite her discomfort and the raw scratches visible on her body, she’s encouraged to relax and forget about the incident. Before long it will become a distant memory as she discovers she’s pregnant.

The pregnancy is terrifying, and not just because of the perfectly natural body horrors that occur. Rosemary loses weight, becomes gaunt, pale and has a sudden appetite for raw meat. She’s given a strange daily drink by Minnie who insists not only that this is much better than prenatal vitamins but also that Rosemary see the doctor of her choice. Mia Farrow gives an impeccable performance flitting around with featherlight fingers clutching her body in pain. Her lithe frame lends itself to Rosemary’s deteriorating condition throughout her pregnancy, her pale skin seems paper thin at her lowest ebb. Though she eventually begins to look like a walking corpse, her complaints about pain are allayed with false assurances and empty promises. From start to finish, Rosemary’s Baby is one of the best vintage motifs of gaslighting. Rosemary’s feminine intuition is strong on every count as she notices discrepancies around her neighbours and building, but her questions are continuously shut down by those around her as neurosis. She has an eye for detail–pictures missing, pierced ears, strange conversations and chanting through the walls stir her. She knows deep down something sinister is going on and her limited support system fails her, mostly by being in cahoots with the cult. Unlike Carol in Repulsion, she is not mentally unwell at all except to stay with her husband and not trust her instincts earlier. We see all of the horrifying clues before she is able to put them together herself, weakened not only by the intrusion on her home but also the intrusion of her pregnancy. Interestingly, Rosemary’s strongest support comes from her girlfriends who corner her in the kitchen at her party. This camaraderie gives her a final push to take a stand and seek outside advice, giving us a moment of respite but, as we all know, it’s much too late. Combined with the longevity of the evil scheme, in the end Rosemary’s motherly instincts will take over and forgive a multitude of heinous sins.

The horror in Rosemary’s Baby first lies in its dreadful pregnancy but also in what is purposefully left out. Dream sequences are particularly strong here, with clever subtle effects like mismatched audio/visual, vague methods of speech and a bed that seems to float on water. Polanski achieved that half-asleep, dreamlike state that eerily mixes dreams with reality, climaxing as Rosemary screams–pulling from Kafka’s Metamorphosis–“This isn’t a dream, this is really happening!” as the devil writhes on top of her. The end of the film is near-perfect horror for what it refuses to show. We see only Rosemary’s reaction to the reveal and our imagination is left to conjure the worst after sitting through such quiet dread, giving the final ten minutes of the film a stunning power. Rosemary’s story then becomes part of The Bramford, which comes to life through its colourful history and the people who are drawn to it–if it doesn’t kill them first. While some may view Rosemary’s turn to support as a victory, in reality it is a devastating example of a woman who is consistently tread upon who gives up in the interest of a moment of respite. Rosemary is a woman who compromises on her boundaries over and over again until it leads to her eventual defeat.

Rosemary’s Baby was both Roman Polanski’s and Mia Farrow’s first Hollywood film, an experience they look back on fondly even with Farrow having been messily divorced by Frank Sinatra for starring in the film. As with every other project he was involved in, Polanski was in hot water due to missing deadlines and massive expense. In fact, the first cut of Rosemary’s Baby was more than four hours long. Thanks to the expert editing of Sam O’Steen, it clocks in at just over two hours and boasts the most colourful aesthetic of the three, capturing the tail-end of the psychedelic ’60s in clothing and decor. Though it bears that unmistakable mark of time, Rosemary’s Baby is timeless horror that will likely always hold up and be a shining example of the depth and creativity of the genre. Polanski’s great success adapting Ira Levin’s book would eventually lead to the final part of the apartment trilogy, The Tenant.

The Tenant (1976)

Paramount Pictures

Perhaps the most underappreciated of the three, yet my personal favourite movie, is The Tenant. Based on the equally impressive book by Roland Topor (originally titled Le locataire chimerique) it tells the tale of a man called Trelkovsky living in an apartment in Paris whose previous owner committed suicide. This seems to have some effect on the ether of the unit as Trelkovsky becomes increasingly paranoid regarding his spiteful and nagging neighbours.

Polanski, no stranger to being both in front and behind the camera, stars as Trelkovsky in all his mouselike glory. He is, by all accounts, a reasonable man. He’s a quiet bachelor, respectful without being a pushover where it counts, at least at first. His immediate goal is to find a place in Paris, which seems to be under a housing crisis (implied by the apartment owner but never confirmed by the tenant himself). All signs point to “Hell, no” in this building: the apartment is dingy and cramped, much too expensive, and the only view overlooks the shared washroom facilities. Not to mention the fact that the previous tenant, Simone Choule, threw herself out the window, a tidbit shared by the concierge between ghoulish laughter as she eagerly shows him the broken pane glass she fell through below. Every other person living in the building is cold, but Trelkovsky takes it since “apartments are hard to come by these days.” It might appear ludicrous, but living in a city with a perpetual housing crisis can do this to people. Suddenly shelling out over 50% of your income for a place that has only one rat seems like a super deal when six of your friends are sharing a one-bedroom apartment. Landlords turn into Mafioso with cash-only payments and impose rules you’d normally question, like Monsieur Zy who insists Trelkovsky never bring women home to entertain and has no qualms about throwing him out if need be.

After accepting the terms and being assured by the concierge that Simone definitely won’t be getting better, a morbid curiosity propels him to visit her in hospital where she lies wrapped like a mummy, vaguely comical as we later find out she’s an Egyptologist. There he meets Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and, desperately curious, pursues a relationship under the guise of being a mutual friend of Simone’s. The two share a coffee and some fondling in a theatre and so Trelkovsky makes his first tangible connection with Simone’s life. This is one of many interactions between characters that quietly displays the way a community reacts to the suicide of a loved one or a well-known face. Trelkovsky becomes a stand-in grief counselor for Simone’s friends or unrequited lovers and the people who knew her around the neighbourhood. This guilty role turns into a mild obsession that seems harmless at first as Trelkovsky paws through the things Simone left behind, but escalates to a startling degree. When he takes his obsession one step further and attends Simone’s funeral, he is overcome with panic as his conscience twists the priest’s words to harness death, decay and separation from God while the camera focuses intensely on the grotesque image of Christ on the cross. Where Trelkovsky has become a new tenant in the building, it seems Simone Choule has become a tenant in his mind and eventually his body; welcomed at first but now a looming presence that darkens his thoughts. Just as he has crossed boundaries into Simone’s life, while incapacitated, she crosses his. Neighbours and her friends alike push their way into Trelkovsky’s apartment to nose around and judge, settling into his mind like mental ticks.

While his mind slowly devolves, strange happenings are taking place in Trelkovsky’s new home. The neighbours are insufferable, constantly accusing him of making noise at night and disturbing their sleep though he makes no apparent sound. When he throws a small housewarming party, the upstairs neighbour yells at him until he shuts the party down. Those familiar with inner-city dwelling know the adjustments one must make when living in close quarters with strangers. Apartments naturally transfer some amount of noise, and Trelkovsky’s friends aren’t exactly quiet that night. In fact, one might say they’re completely inconsiderate. They mock him and his neighbours, loudly plotting violent revenge, like setting the toilet on fire, or drilling a hole in the wall to funnel in gas. At times they appear to be representative of the darker thoughts that are going on inside of Trelkovsky’s own mind. He may not outwardly share angry, violent opinions or chastise himself, instead choosing to make peace and acquiesce to demands, but those thoughts certainly exist. Surely if we were to hear our internal thoughts from the mouths of others they would sound as properly insane as his friends regularly do. Their influence ends when one friend invites him over for a show of bravado. Putting on a marching band record at volumes way past enjoyment, he lets Trelkovsky watch him yell in his neighbour’s face when he asks him to turn it down for his sick wife. “See, that’s how we deal with them!” he says, before putting his proverbial dick back in his pants. But it’s too late for Trelkovsky. Every movement and sound he makes in his home thereafter causes him to tense up, or leave the apartment for a more accommodating setting. Unsurprisingly, he discovers he is not the only one being tortured by impossible standards regarding noise when he’s confronted with–and refuses, to great anger, to sign–a petition to throw out a single mother and her daughter. More than being the victim to complaints and frustrated knocks and bangs, Trelkovsky is also being watched by frightening mysterious figures, strangers and tenants who stand “dead still” in the washroom facilities to stare into his apartment or at nothing at all. These ghostly figures change shape and identity but never the sense of dread they bring.

As if being unwelcome in his own home isn’t enough, Trelkovsky is a foreigner who must bend to the standards and will of the community around him, eventually losing his identity in the process. When he fights back or stands up for himself, question of his nationality comes up even though he is a French citizen. He is bullied by the chief of police and it is insinuated that his heritage throws a shadow on his personhood. Knowing Polanski’s history with Krakow concentration camp–escaping at age 6 and surviving by hiding among several families–and employing skilled and reckless performances, this is likely a sensitive personal glimpse into a life. It also uncomfortably predicts his flight to France two years later in order to escape sentencing for his underage sex crimes. France is one of few countries who refuse extradition to the United States and Trelkovsky, like Polanski may have, cries out in defense more than once, “But I am a French citizen!” Ironically this fact has saved Polanski’s personal life for decades though, in the film, it does little to appease Trelkovsky’s accusers. He remains out of place and a bother to those around him.

Like most seemingly well-meaning individuals, Trelkovsky succumbs to the weaknesses of good people, an abundance of little white lies and self-sacrifices regardless of his own health or comfort. At first we witness an absent-minded merging of his and Simone’s belongings, life, and habits. But it becomes apparent to him, and to us, that there is some forcing into the role through pressures from other tenants and from the neighbourhood. The question is, how much is paranoia? Of the three films in the Apartment Trilogy, The Tenant is the most questionable regarding whether or not everything is “all in the head.” It is impossible to know what is really happening and what is a figment of his own guilt and paranoia. One could argue that Trelkovsky has no boundaries at all, or has negated them by crossing them himself. When he finds a tooth stuck deep in a hole in his wall, he is appropriately disturbed and obsesses over the symbolism of his find. “A tooth is a part of ourselves, like our personality . . . ” he says to a sexually frustrated Stella, musing about how much of our bodies we can lose before we lose ourselves completely. This existential philosophical discussion is fueled by alcohol and a crumbling mind, confirmed via the classic mirror shot suggesting dissociation. Stella just wants to get laid, but her loneliness makes room for his strange behaviour. She lets him ramble on about the repercussions of amputation–“If I am just a head, can I call myself me? What right does my head have to call itself me?” Endless questions about personhood and tenancy that trouble the mind and give great insight to Trelkovsky’s eventual complete breakdown.

Like the rest of Polanski’s trilogy, fear and dread is caught in claustrophobic shots under the bed, in the living spaces, with heads knocked together, and gruesome death screams. Paranoia, again, is the most important player in the mind of the character who is trapped within the apartment’s walls which shift in madness with endless hallways and backward staircases. Music plays a fantastical role; a glass harmonica offers an ethereal effect, accentuated with classic ’70s ADR as The Tenant was filmed in the language each actor was most comfortable speaking and dubbed later. By the end of the, film Polanski completely transforms a role that could be wrongly dismissed as a joke, and with unpretentious delicacy. Regardless of the truth, The Tenant gives us an absolutely gnarly ending that will be adored by some and found gratuitous by others.

This theme of closed quarters is something Polanski never left behind, extending through his lifetime achievement, The Pianist, and beyond to Carnage, which is suffocatingly claustrophobic even as a comedy of errors. Surely Polanski’s suffering informed his art as much as his actions. In some ways, this type of film is a cockeyed take on home invasion and what makes it so successful is that home is supposed to be a sanctuary, the safest place. These situations may not always involve people banging on the door with knives, but their nosy, peeping and manipulative ways enter the boundaries of the home and, even worse, the mind. Polanski’s characters are confined and isolated, displaying their humanity under stress in tight living conditions as we look on. What better place to examine this than the tight confines of an apartment dwelling? After all, who we are when we’re alone and under stress is really who we are. And if we are left too long in the confines of our own apartments, perhaps we give our surroundings life through an absence of our own–creating malleable boundaries that in our loneliness we are too eager for ourselves or others to cross.

Featured Image: Paramount Pictures

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Becky Belzile
Becky lives on the west coast of Canada in beautiful Vancouver, BC. When she’s not devouring horror movies and writing about them, she’s checking out the local comedy scene, cookin' cool snacks, or playing a stupid amount of video games.

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