Self Awareness in Rear Window vs. The Tenant

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant are both films about observing and being observed. Rear Window was released in 1954 and The Tenant was released two decades later in 1976. They are very different films, so different as to defy comparison but their differences can bring insight into not only the films themselves but their makers and the era’s in which they worked.

In Rear Window we have a clear cut narrative with a structure that rewards the protagonist in the end. The main character, Jeff seems to be losing touch with reality and perhaps sinking into paranoia but all concern is dispelled and his observations are vindicated in the end. For Polanski’s protagonist, Trelkovsky, the end not only denies him any vindication it provides no resolution for the film. In fact Trelkovsky drags himself upstairs to replay the meaningless ending a second time. We are not given a straight forward master narrative in The Tenant. We are drawn down into Trelkovsky subjective experience and are left disoriented. In contrast both Jeff and Hitchcock celebrate the triumph of their ordered objectivity by tying all the loose ends together in a conclusive bow.

Both Jeff and Trelkovsky end up falling from their respective windows. Both are temporarily rendered helpless as they become an observed spectacle. For Jeff this is only the second time he has been observed, the first being when Mr. Thorwald catches Jeff spying on him. Mr. Thorwald looks directly into Jeff’s camera which we see through Jeff’s point of view. We look through Hitchcock’s camera to see through Jeff’s eyes which enable us to look through Jeff’s camera as Mr Thorwald stares directly at us almost as if he is breaking the fourth wall. We are confronted with our own voyeuristic tendencies, Hitchcock’s favorite trick.

The subjective nature of The Tenant is further enhanced by Roman Polanski playing the protagonist himself. Hitchcock, his obligatory cameo aside, stays behind his camera similar to how his character, Jeff, stays behind his binoculars. Hitchcock is a controlled and detached director who sees his actors as chess pieces he can manipulate. Each character has a specific purpose in a meticulously crafted and carefully controlled narrative. Polanski positions himself inside his film making objectivity that much more difficult. He must be the observer and the observed. The controller and the controlled.

In a scene in The Tenant Trelkovsky, is lying drunk in bed while a woman, who is also drunk, tries to undress him. While she wrestles with his pants he mumbles a soliloquy about identity, “At what precise moment does an individual stop being who he thinks he is? Cut off my arm, right? I say me and my arm. You cut off my other arm, I say me and my two arms. Take out my stomach, my kidneys assuming that were possible and I say me and my intestines. Follow me? And now if you cut off my head, what would I say, me and my head? or me and my body. What right does my head to call itself me?”

Trelkovsky alienates himself from his body and mind. He begins to float away in to a dissociative reverie. All the while the woman, Stella, tries to unite with him. In the end he seems to pass out and Stella sighs in resignation, letting her head come to rest on his limp thigh.

In Rear Window Jeff too is being courted by a woman, and he too keeps her at bay. Both men suffer from feeling marginalized, but Trelkovsky’s alienation stems from something deep and abiding that is coming to fruition. Trelkovsky doesn’t understand what is happening to him but he is engaged in a struggle with it. Jeff on the other hand, feels aggravated but lacks any insight or engagement with what is happening to him. He snipes at his girlfriend and at the nurse who takes care of him. He passes judgement on everyone around him and never turns inward to examine himself. The binoculars are always trained away from himself. In addition no one, until the very end, looks back at him, whereas Trelkovsky is constantly under surveillance. He is acutely aware of his observers and their oppressive judgement. Where Jeff is aloof and removed, Trelkovsky is embroiled and vulnerable.

Jeff is troubled by those around him who do not recognize the truth of what he is saying. Trelkovsky is completely confused and can not find the truth. When Trelkovsky finally thinks he has, it destroys him. There is a subtext at work which speaks to the waning of enlightenment values. One way to view the ideological history of the twentieth century is a slow erosion of our faith in rationality and progress. Starting very early with Frankenstein, Mary Shelley registered her anxiety concerning our belief that reason, logic and science are our ultimate saviors. Hitchcock has a foot in either camp. He likes to troll the depths of the subconscious, and dredge up interesting and fearful ideas, but they are always kept on a tight leash and inevitably end up back in their cages. Norman Bates is safely behind bars in the end. Hitchcock has faith that society at large can contain its deviants and transgressors without falling apart.

A few years prior to making The Tenant Polanski’s pregnant wife was stabbed 16 times and her blood used to scrawl “pig” on the door. Her murder at the hands of a cult headed by a madman surely contributed to Polanski’s darker take on the role of the violent and deranged in society. Polanski could not objectively observe depravity having suffered under it.

Formation of identity is always in reference to others. It is not possible to assign any adjective or attribute to oneself without describing others. In order to be “smart” or “a loner” or “Mexican,” or “female”, or “Hindu”, or “human” you need others who are not. In fact not only do you need to differentiate yourself by placing yourself in opposition to others but in addition you need others to accommodate the labels you have taken to yourself. If I am to be a teacher I need others who will call themselves students. It is a dynamic of acceptance and rejection on both ends of the equation.

Jeff is mostly seen defining himself in opposition to his surroundings. He doesn’t see himself as yet another window in the array of windows. Instead, as the observer, he distinguishes himself as above the fray. He even rejects his lovely girlfriend Lisa’s attempt to define him as a partner. In the end Jeff’s identity is left unchanged and those around him must accept him as is. He learns no lesson.

Trelkovsky has no such independence. By the end the boundaries of his identity are in complete disarray. He can’t differentiate between his thoughts and the thoughts of others. Even his relationship to his own body, as foreshadowed by the earlier quote, comes into question. Unlike Jeff he is unable to find himself amidst those who surround him.

The two films outline the nature of objectivity and subjectivity just as they define identity as a position one takes in acceptance or rejection of other people. Rear Window has a fundamental optimism that objective truth can win the day and that deviant behavior can be dealt with. No such optimism exists in The Tenant. No hero’s journey here. The subjective overtakes us and we are overwhelmed by a world that will not succumb to our control.

I have an MFA in painting and I’m an art professor but I managed to convince my school to let me teach film.