Directors' Cut: Funny peculiar: Ethan and Joel Coen on the brilliant absurdity of Roman Polanski's horror comedy, The Tenant

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes, when we're talking to each other about someone unsavoury, we use a line from Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976) to describe them. Referring to his landlords, the character played by Polanski in the film says 'These people are monsters - they play football with human heads.'

That film has got a great plot. Polanski rents an apartment vacated by an attempted suicide and strange things happen. In one scene we especially like, a neighbour invites him down to his flat and puts this hideous martial music on the phonograph. What's the saying? - 'Military justice is to justice as martial music is to music.' Anyway, this music is very loud and this guy says, 'If the neighbours don't like it, to hell with them]' The dialogue's in English, but it sounds translated - it might have been dubbed into English, actually.

The scene's absurd in a narrative sense; it doesn't do a damn thing for the story. Everything in the movie builds up the same sense of this weird apartment block. The whole visual style is languorous and spooky: it starts in the courtyard with this big pan from the apartment window seen from the outside, down to the ground floor - Sven Nykvist shot it. So it's not as if Polanski needs that added detail. But the scene's there anyway. It's what we call a Kafka break]

Part of what's funny about it is Polanski's persona - he's just there, sitting very small on the couch like a Gogol character, next to this boor in a really ugly early Seventies suit listening to martial music. He plays the same sort of guy as his characters in Dance of the Vampires and Pirates - this little put-upon schmendrick. In another scene, some other guy comes into a bar off the street, in a good mood, and says 'Drinks for everyone . . . ' - pointing at Polanski's character - ' . . except him.'

The film has a great ending, too: Polanski jumps out the same window as the previous tenant. But he doesn't succeed in killing himself, so he has to haul himself back up four flights of stairs to hurl himself out a second time. As a director he always goes beyond the obvious - the obvious narrative drift of the movie is that the guy's going to end up throwing himself out the window, but he then undercuts that by having it not quite work. Yeah, you really can't beat Polanski for laughs.

We've always been big Polanski fans, and this is one of his best movies. He's a great craftsman and story-teller, and he has a great sense of humour. It's very wholesome, and that's something you don't see that often. Because The Tenant is a funny movie. At the time everyone thought it was just creepy - it has been much misunderstood.

You know, people frequently have trouble laughing at things that don't announce themselves as comedy in a broad way. Most American comedy is, like, just product rather than particularly interesting. Formulaic. But then that's the nature of the beast.

The Coen Brothers directed 'Blood Simple', 'Raising Arizona', 'Miller's Crossing' and 'Barton Fink'. Their new comedy, 'The Hudsucker Proxy', continues to play in the West End of London. It opens around the country on 30 Sept

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