In a way, the ultimate Roman Polanski skin-crawler, and one of cinema's supreme paranoid fantasias. It's also the concluding panel in his casual trilogy of property horror, with the opening camera ballet turning the gray-brickish courtyard of the plot's main apartment complex into the summation of the malevolent lodgings from Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. Indeed, the arc of dissipating sanity, derived from Roland Topor's novel, re-imagines Catherine Deneuve's subjective dive in Repulsion, but with the creator's involvement more pronounced -- Polanski clinches it by casting himself as Polish-born French citizen Trelkovsky, who lands a Paris apartment after the previous owner landed in the glasshouse outside the window. Why the suicide? Who are these people calling themselves neighbors? Why are they after Tretkovsky? Or are they? Truly hard to say when the gargoyle gallery contains such keenly caricatured types as Shelley Winters' bullfrog concierge, Melvyn Douglas' embalmed landlord, and Jo Van Fleet's histrionic gossip. Is madness a curse passed from person to person? As good an explanation as any when the world consists of snapping small dogs, ungrateful beggars, pervs gawking at makeouts, latrines covered in hieroglyphs. Initially written off as indulgent self-parody after the tighter claustrophobia of Chinatown, the comically escalating sense of dread is a refinement of Polanski's Beckett-bleak worldview, where weaklings, assholes and weirdos jostle for control, and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are of helping the suffering of others. Still, Polanski's critique is aimed inwards, at his own suspicious spirit, the shy fox shackled to his malice and fears even in the arms of the unlikely date (Isabelle Adjani, lampooning Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris). "You have only yourself to blame," Winters snaps at Trelkovsky-Polanski. That disintegration, immaculately rendered by Sven Nykvist's lens through the nightmarish expressiveness of buildings, walls, and cafés, amounts to a spiritual purge, an exposure that has, in order to succeed, to be pushed to the ridiculous-sublime apex of the artist himself, dolled-up in drag, enacting an encore to his own swam dive into the pavement. After that, what's left to do but zoom into the wailing darkness? With Bernard Fresson, Lila Kedrova, Claude Dauphin, Claude Pieplu, and Rufus.
--- Fernando F. Croce