Rosemary’s Baby

The Liberal Ironist just re-watched Rosemary’s Baby–at a birthday party, of all inappropriate places.  I was ambivalent about the group watching it even though it’s one of my favorite movies; after all, while the general consensus appeared to be for a horror movie, the original 1968 Rosemary’s Baby is actually scary.

Really effective horror movies, I think, reflect the wisdom of JJ Abrams’ TED talk: It isn’t really about the monster, it’s about the characters.  Spoony, a gruff Internet reviewer of video games and movies whose judgment I greatly respect, made the same point: Most horror movies have no chance of being truly effective because they have no intention of drawing the viewer in to care about the characters before killing them off.  Rosemary Woodhouse, our protagonist compellingly-portrayed by Mia Farrow, is beautiful, very smart, has a small ego and is truly devoted to her husband and friends.  She is so likable that even at those points at where she becomes tiring it tends to be due to exasperation at her inability or disinclination to help herself.  Farrow makes evoking a state of greatly-undeserved suffering look easy.  I first noticed this watching Hannah and Her Sisters years ago; Farrow plays Hannah, a loving wife and sister whose loved ones sometimes take advantage of her–and hold it against her.  While it’s a horror movie, Rosemary’s Baby isn’t about a body count, gimmicks or gore.  The obvious evil in this story is just a MacGuffin; the evil that is central to the plot is very-much a part of the world today, whenever people are deaf to a real victim.

Rosemary, trusting-enough to accept what others tell her at face value, objects when her husband tells her he made love to her while she was unconscious. As usual he quickly brushes off her objection.

Rosemary’s Baby is about rape.  This interpretation may seem like hindsight given that it is another Roman Polanski film.  It warrants mention, at the risk of morbidity, that Polanski himself once violated a minor and had to flee the country; I already raised this point in my previous review of The Ghost Writer.

"All the words are there; they're just in the wrong order."

It’s strange to think that Polanski, who in films like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown did so much to popularize awareness of the female victims of sexual transgression, would commit such an outrage a few years later–but maybe he always knew he had a predisposition for the outrageous.  In contrast to several films themed on men’s cruelty to women, such as Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo, David Lynch‘s Lost Highway, or (again) Polanski’s ChinatownRosemary’s Baby is entirely about the experience of a woman who has been subjected to an act of violation reaching out to those whom are supposed to help her.

And what an exceptional sufferer Rosemary is, arguably unlike the rest of us in 2 ways: She mostly suffers quietly, and owing to her trust, devotion to others and fortitude rather than from want of them.  Somehow she also manages to be both highly-intelligent and an innocent, an obedient housewife and thoroughly self-possessed and able to act on her own.  Her intelligence in particular warrants mention.  While one readily feels exasperated by Rosemary’s complacency about her husband’s new friends (though this exasperation is probably motivated by how easy it is to sympathize with her), the truth is she’s marvelously observant, detecting previously-moved furniture and hidden passageways, noticing an elderly male neighbor’s pierced ears (a pretty strong counterculture statement back in 1966), inferring the significance of a friend’s missing glove and apparently needing just minutes to work out an anagram that completely changes the direction of the plot.  The only cause we have to think Rosemary stupid owes to the trust she has for her loved ones.  Her husband, a young actor with a flagging career who is manifestly inferior to her, alternately patronizes her and abandons her for long stretches of time; on numerous occasions he becomes angry with her when she acts on her own.  As her health deteriorates and she spends weeks in pain due to her pregnancy, she makes clear that she already loves and wants to protect her unborn child; she relies upon the judgment of her doctor, an expensive but well-reputed specialist, when he tells her to take herbal shakes rather than prescription pills–though both her doctor and her husband scold her for reading about pregnancy on her own.

Rosemary's Baby shares a clever visual trope with The Ninth Gate, Polanski's other exploration of the Satanic macabre. In both movies Polanski challenges the viewer's ability to tell whether what they see is a demonic presence or just something ghoulish-looking. Quickly following this montage of a pale and emaciated Rosemary at Rockefeller Center, she stares into her reflection on 2 separate occasions just 2 minutes apart; each of these moments is among of the most-frightening images I have ever seen.

As a feminist fable, some might be tempted to compare Rosemary’s Baby to A Doll’s House.  This is both informative and somewhat-misguided.  Both stories involve a woman who is smart but unaccustomed to acting that way, a weak husband who systematically takes for her granted, and an ultimate recognition that the “bargain” of a woman’s devotion for a man’s protection has turned out (at least in this instance) to be an utter fraud.  The resolution separates the 2 narratives; in A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen offers an optimistic political statement, while Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie in the “resilience of radical evil” tradition.

The thing that makes Rosemary's Baby so different from most horror movies is the peculiarity of theme. So many people whom she should be able to trust either fail to listen to her as she becomes increasingly-frightened, or even manipulate her for their own purposes. Because of her love and trust for her husband and her neighbors, and her ability to bear so much pain without complaint, she is slow to grasp what is happening or the depth of the evil gathering around her. It's through her virtues that they trap her.

How can this beautiful, intelligent, resourceful and self-possessed protagonist be taken advantage of so completely and for so long?  It’s only possible because she’s so loving. Rosemary objects to her husband’s abrupt cancellation of their plans to go out with friends, the weird inconsideration of his lovemaking, and her doctor’s unconcern with her crashing health among other things; each time she finds her protests ignored if not attacked.  What makes Rosemary’s Baby frightening is the fact that the supernatural horror is actually the inessential “MacGuffin” of this story; the naturalistic nightmare drives all of the action.  Everyone Rosemary should be able to trust is either quietly pushed out of her life or actually closes ranks against her.  Seemingly-normal people who have terrible plans for her are able to leverage her love and trust to buy themselves time; some, including her former doctor, either don’t care enough or don’t take her (a pregnant woman in 1966) seriously-enough to get involved.  Once she does start to suspect she has been backed into a corner it’s already too late: She’s only a housewife, and has nowhere to go.

“Out of all the women in the world, he chose you!”  This makes perfect sense.  She was defiled because she was so good.

One good test of whether you're watching a Polanski flick: The look of a protagonist who has gotten to the bottom of things.


One thought on “Rosemary’s Baby

  1. CMrok93

    Polanski is brilliant. I’m a huge fan of Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant also. Mia Farrow is excellent, it is hard for me to imagine anyone else in the role of Rosemary. I only hope no one ever tries to remake it!


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