Trelkovsky and Stella become friends, but he spends most of his time alone in his apartment, where he is beset by eccentric, demanding neighbors. Trelkovsky slowly descends into madness, in a belief he is compelled to become the prior tenant, the suicide. It all ends badly.
The Tenant was filmed in both French and English. In the English version, the French-speaking actors are dubbed by English actors. In the French version, the English-speaking actors (Melvin Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Shelley Winters) are presumably dubbed by French actors. Polanski is not dubbed in either version. Normally, dubbing is problematic, but the English voice actors are sufficiently amusing that the dubbing is more interesting than distracting.
How others will see it. By 1976, Polanski's reputation as a director was assured. Chinatown (1973) was acclaimed, and his 1977 arrest for sex with a 13-year-old was still in the future. Nonetheless, The Tenant was not a commercial success, and critical reaction was mixed. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but other festival attention was lacking.
But time has been kind to The Tenant. Today, it has 42K user reviews at imdb.com, and a high user rating of 7.7 out of 10. Most user reviews are highly positive, though there are the expected outliers who believe the pace is too slow, or don't understand why Polanski becomes a drag queen.
How I felt about it. My first reaction is probably much different than most viewers. Mostly, I feel sorry for Polanski's character. This lonely and increasingly distressed man is surrounded by hostile neighbors and mocking co-workers. The police are indifferent to malevolent. The conclusion is that it sucks to be lower middle income class in Paris, France.
Because it is a movie, Polanski does have a romantic interest out of his league. Polanski apparently brings out the mothering instinct in Adjani. Although she is second billed, she only has a few scenes. The rising young actress was likely brought onboard to increase the film's commercial potential, not that Polanski didn't enjoy filming her scenes.
Likewise, the aging American actors (Douglas, Van Fleet, Winters) were probably intended to drum up interest in the American market, though only Winters had any commercial appeal, thanks chiefly to The Poseidon Adventure.
This is a really strange movie. It reminds me of Groundhog Day in that Polanski is in a time loop that he can't escape from. But this is no comedy. It's not much of a horror film, either. Instead, it seems to be a commentary on the bleak life of a single working man, a new reworking of King Vidor's The Crowd (1928).
Polanski's meek character is contrasted with his obnoxious co-worker Scope (Bernard Fresson). Scope says and does what he pleases, and the implication is that it better to be an emancipated jerk than a repressed milquetoast. The film is often compared to Polanski's prior films Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, which depict the increasing paranoia of the soft-spoken lead character.