Beyond The Frame: The Tenant

Sven Nykvist, ASC brought an uncanny sense of paranoia and dread to this Roman Polanski drama.
David E. Williams

Directed by and starring Roman Polanski, the Kafkaesque psychological thriller The Tenant (1976) is somewhat of a companion piece to the filmmaker’s breakthrough feature Repulsion (1965), as the gradual mental deterioration of the main character becomes central to the film’s visual style.

While Repulsion was shot in stark black-and-white by Gilbert Taylor, BSC (who would go on to be a collaborator on the films Cul-de-Sac and Macbeth), The Tenant was photographed in rich color and deep shadow by Sven Nykvist, ASC, who made exemplary use of the then-new Louma Crane to often achieve a dreamlike, floating effect.

Here, Nykvist observes next to the camera as Polanski checks a composition on actress Isabelle Adjani and a mannequin head stand-in for the actor-director. “Working with Polanski gave me the chance to try a new type of photography, different from the style of [Ingmar] Bergman’s pictures, where you’re usually very close to the faces, and the background is out of focus,” Nykvist later noted. “On The Tenant, it was important to keep all the visual detail of the background active as part of the atmosphere.  I took a lot of risks in my lighting, and took the actors into darkness — whereas with Ingmar I had always lit the actors fairly brightly.”

If you enjoy archival and retrospective articles on classic and influential films, you'll find more AC historical coverage here.

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