Cinematic Exile: Performing the Foreign Body on Screen in Roman Polanski's The Tenant
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Cinematic Exile:
Performing the Foreign Body on Screen in Roman Polanski's The Tenant

Katarzyna Marciniak *

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The flesh is intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus,
at once its subject, its substance, and its limits.

--Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body

These women have the most beautiful music; the glitter of spotlights is theirs. Adoration and sublimation, a formidable love that must forever be conquered and danger that is absolute are theirs. And the act of falling, the final gesture is theirs as well--and the voice in its death agony. When the men die or are defeated, it is because they have some unremarked traits deriving from a femininity unerringly detected by the opera. The ones defeated are the weak sons, the lame, the hunchbacks, the blacks, the foreigners, and the old men--those who are like women. The triumphant ones are the fathers, the kings, the uncles, the lovers. Authorities are triumphant, and so are Churches; above them a divine image is barely hidden. The defeated are the forces of the night, the forces of darkness, the forces of the weak and underprivileged.

--Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women [End Page 1]

Roman Polanski's films have fascinated and provoked viewers and critics since his first film études such as Teethful Smile (1957), the award-winning Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), or his graduate film, When Angels Fall (1959). 1 Even though these short films were only student productions, they attracted attention as intriguing and original cinematic experiments, quite stunning and provocative in the artistic landscape of postwar communist Poland. It is interesting, for example, that while Polanski's feature debut, Knife in the Water (1962), garnered several prestigious awards in the West, including the very first Polish Oscar nomination in 1963, critics in communist Poland described the film as incomprehensible, posturing, or even outright "dangerous." This is how one film theorist writes about the reception of the film in Poland: "Because the film was considered an attack on the established social norms, it had to be attacked to protect the ideological principles it threatened. The critics reprimanded the depiction of characters and the portrayed reality as well as the main issue of the film, foreign influences, and the representation of a young generation." 2

The unnerving content displayed in his first feature film, its assault on conventional cinematic vision, and Polanski's own experience of exile seem to permeate almost all his work. His internationally produced films such as Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), The Tenant (1976), or a more recent political thriller, Death and the Maiden (1994), have established his artistic reputation and, perhaps more importantly, articulated his cinematic fascination not necessarily with sensationalized violence, but with the terror of a more subtly poignant nature: the horror of enclosed spaces that create an intense mood of claustrophobia. Even though Polanski himself has always refused to discuss the connection between his personal experiences and his films, thus allowing the viewers to treat his films as cinematic texts open to interpretation, critics have consistently noted the correlation between his childhood history as a Jew under the Nazi occupation of his native Poland and his films' acute preoccupation with self-contained spaces, which seem to evoke the Holocaust ghetto experience. 3 [End Page 2]

This article focuses on The Tenant, a cinematic text that is largely unknown and untheorized, even though Polanski's other films have received considerable critical attention. 4 I argue for reading The Tenant as a cinematic narrative of exile, a move that allows us to analyze this film as a passionate critique of phobic nationalism and the obsessive desire to guard national borders against strangers-foreigners who are coded as undesirable intruders and stigmatized as others. I read The Tenant as a filmic narrative of abjection by analyzing two critical moments: the two screams which open and close the narrative sequence. Drawing on Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject--"the in-between, the ambiguous, the...