The apartment in cinema: the walls of terror

Roman Polanski's film "The Tenant" explores the terrors of apartment living as part of his Apartment Trilogy.

Roman Polanski’s film “The Tenant” explores the terrors of apartment living as part of his Apartment Trilogy.


There’s a building boom going on in downtown Orlando, a healthy return for the construction industry that got battered during the Great Recession, and a sign that “growth” is once again becoming a critical engine for economic development in Central Florida.
This time, though, the boom is not for single family houses, or for subdivisions that offer row after row of cookie-cutter style homes. The trend now is upscale apartment living.
There are sections of downtown Orlando undergoing construction of new apartment complexes even though there are plenty of other new ones — often literally right across the street or next door. It suggests an insatiable appetite — at the moment, at least — for a downtown urban lifestyle.
Some of this makes sense. Those who lost a home during the great recession, and watched helplessly as it fell into foreclosure after they lost their job, now may no longer want to return to home buying. The prices are rising, while banks have been strict, requiring near-perfect credit, and a very high down payment that some may not have. At the same time, they may no longer want the responsibility of homeownership and may prefer leaving the repairs and lawn work to the landlord. So right now, in downtown Orlando, the apartment is king.
How long this trend will last is anyone’s guess. But it’s interesting to note that right now, the apartment seems like the safe haven for many seeking a place to call their own in downtown Orlando — spacious but not too large and unmanageable, within walking distance of everything you need, and still someone else’s overall responsibility. You’re just there temporarily, in theory.
Apartment living hasn’t always been this widely cherished — witness the boom in suburbia in the 1950s as millions of city dwellers decided they wanted a place of their own, with their own yard and property, rather than being cramped into a little apartment with noisy neighbors right on top of you.
In fact, the apartment has sometimes been portrayed in cinema as being anything but a safe haven from the harsh world outside. No film director better exemplifies that than Roman Polanski.
Polanski has made six movies that portray protagonists living in apartments. The films are diverse in content. Three are horror movies — “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Tenant” (1976) — and make up his highly-praised Apartment Trilogy. One is the historical Holocaust drama “The Pianist” (2002), another is the sexually-charged drama “Bitter Moon” (1992), and the final one is the comedy “Carnage” (2011).
In each case, though, the apartments become dark places of terror, that seem to trap the characters, prison-like. What initially seems cozy and homey becomes eerie and threatening.
In the Apartment Trilogy and “The Pianist,” the characters find it impossible to escape from the oppressive nature of the society around them. In “Bitter Moon” and “Carnage,” though, it’s not so much society to blame as the characters themselves, who give in to their most sadistic desires and hateful feelings, as if the enclosed space of the apartment contributes to bringing it out in the open. In each case, Polanski seems to be cautioning, Be careful where you chose to go: it just might destroy you.
In Polanski’s cinematic world, the apartment becomes the last stop for those seeking refuge — a place that initially appears quite inviting. Rosemary is thrilled to have found such a beautiful apartment in New York City to start her new life with husband Guy, despite the warnings from her friend Hutch that the complex has a dark and unsavory history. Trelkovsky in “The Tenant,” is desperate for a new apartment in Paris at a time when vacancies are rock bottom low, and he’s equally thrilled to latch on to a small two-room apartment with no toilet — even after the concierge points out that the last tenant threw herself out the window. And Szpilman in “The Pianist” is initially overjoyed when, as a Jew escaping Nazi persecution in Poland, his Christian friends find him a small, vacant apartment that he can hide in — even though all of his neighbors will be Germans, and many of them Nazi sympathizers.
In the Apartment Trilogy and “The Pianist,” the main characters are haunted by malevolent societal threats: a sexist and dominating male culture in “Repulsion,” a scheming group of Satanists in “Rosemary’s Baby,” a xenophobic and anti-Semitic culture in “The Tenant,” and the Nazi onslaught in “The Pianist.” Escaping to those apartments doesn’t help — society simply closes in an them.
In “Repulsion,” Carol is a Belgian manicurist living in London. Young and beautiful, she’s the object of considerable attention from the men around her — attention that’s often focused exclusively on sexuality. There are hints that Carol may have been sexually abused as a child, and as an adult, she finds herself attracted to sex — and fearful of it. She lives in an apartment with her sister, who leaves her alone for a week to take off for Italy with her married boyfriend. Left alone, Carol begins to imagine that the construction worker who made crude comments as she walked by is breaking into her apartment to violently rape her. By the time Colin, a young man who’d like to become Carol’s boyfriend, and her seedy landlord looking for the rent, decide to drop by the apartment, Carol is so overwrought with terror that she’s ready to fight back.
Made during the era of London’s “swinging sixties,” “Repulsion” shows a dark side to the new sexual freedom: objectifying women as sex objects, not marriage material. It’s an interesting film to watch in a time when the issue of campus rape, and how best to respond to it, has become a major topic of debate today.
In “Rosemary’s Baby,” a group of Satanists living in Rosemary’s apartment building decide to use her to give birth to Satan’s child — and one of the most unnerving aspects of the film, made in 1968, is the way in which the Satanists seem to have a genuine opening in a decade when long-established values appear to be collapsing. The Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, student riots, racial segregation and Jim Crow, and that Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?” all create the image of a God-abandoned universe where rational order is replaced by chaos, providing dark and sinister forces with a unique opportunity.
As both “The Tenant” and “The Pianist” demonstrate, it doesn’t take a group of Satan worshippers to create a hostile and oppressive society. Trelkovsky and Szpilman, both Jews, struggle to survive in a society that equates traditional values with cultural conformity. Both men hide almost dead-silent in their apartments; Trelkovsky’s neighbors complain repeatedly that he makes too much noise, even though he hardly ever emits a sound, while Szpilman must desperately keep quiet so none of his German neighbors figure out he’s there. In both movies, the devastating solution to this hostility is suicide. Feeling like he’s being endlessly hounded and persecuted by his neighbors, Trelkovsky throws himself out his apartment window, not once but twice, as the previous tenant did; while one of the men who brings food to Szpilman at his apartment advises him that if the Nazis ever show up, he should throw himself out the window rather than be taken captive.
In all four movies, the apartment is the grim last stop before society swarms in for the kill. The protagonists — Carol, Rosemary, Trelkovsky and Szpilman — become alien to the rest of society, cut adrift.
If these four movies present victims in a bigoted and oppressive society, the black comedy in both “Bitter Moon” and “Carnage” suggest we sometimes become our own worst enemies. Society may ask us to be polite and civil to one another, but the truth is, it’s often just a mask for our crudest instincts.
“Bitter Moon” tells the love story of Oscar and Mimi — a romance that goes terribly wrong. Oscar is an American writer living in a Paris apartment, who meets a beautiful young woman named Mimi. They fall madly in love, and she moves in with him.
But their passion starts out so intensely that they have trouble maintaining this exhilarating sexual and emotional “high.” Outside the bedroom, life between them becomes routine, monotonous, even boring. So, eventually, does their sexual escapades. They dip their feet into sadomasochism, as Mimi wields a whip and Oscar crawls on all fours.
As it turns out, their mild S&M nights are sweet and innocent compared to what comes next. As Oscar falls out of love with Mimi, he can’t get rid of her — she still loves him deeply — so he goes out of his way to abuse her — not physically, but emotionally, in astonishingly cruel attempts to humiliate and degrade her. He eventually does lose Mimi; but when Oscar is hit by a car and left a paraplegic, Mimi returns to care for him — with a vengeance. She now goes out of her way to shame and debase Oscar in the same way he trashed her. Their apartment becomes a torture den of emotional sadism.
Even Oscar admits, seconds after killing Mimi and then preparing to take his own life, that “We got too greedy, baby.” Addicted to the initial romantic euphoria when they first met, it becomes like a virgin’s first shot of heroin, and it becomes impossible for Mimi and Oscar to settle into a pleasant and hum-drum life as a nice couple. They truly did get too “greedy” for a passion that was not destined to sustain itself.
In “Carnage,” two couples meet to discuss the fistfight their two young sons got into. Initially they’re all respectful, pleasant, the very picture of a finely civilized society. But as their differences get more obvious, and they begin to drink, all four eventually turn on one another in savage ways, bringing out views that are racist, sexist, mean-spirited and downright nasty. There’s a loudmouthed bully lurking inside all of us, the film appears to be saying, even though we pretend to be oh-so-very respectable.
In both movies, the tight, cramped spaces of those apartments work to bring out people’s worst instincts and behaviors — and not to suppress them. There’s something monstrous lurking beneath the surface — and it is within us, waiting to explode.
Orlando appears to be on a long-term movement toward more high-rise living, a trend that appears to be a hit, since some of these apartment complexes have waiting lists.
But those who are on the fence about whether to live in an apartment, or buy a home, might be well advised to watch Polanski’s apartment movies first. They leave you with a lot of thorny questions to think about.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply