by Matt Levine
The most chilling moment in Rosemary’s Baby sounds like nothing at all: by now convinced that every male she knows has conspired to offer her unborn baby as a satanic sacrifice, Rosemary waits in a phone booth, trapped and terrorized, for a phone call from a seemingly kind obstetrician named Dr. Hill. Considering her husband, the elderly couple next door, and her other obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein, all seem to be in on this treacherous plot, Rosemary has reason to distrust everyone. Having finally picked up a call from Dr. Hill, Rosemary doesn’t notice when a tall, hulking man approaches the phone booth, his back facing the camera. The camera tracks slightly right and downward, there’s a brief musical cue on the soundtrack—and that’s it. The effect of such a minuscule formal choice, however, is shattering, as this unknown man comes to symbolize all of the evil besieging Rosemary—from her husband and friends, the supposed terrain of love and family; from a heteronormative culture, which sees Rosemary’s pregnancy as her ultimate worth in marriage; and from the patriarchal medical field, which prescribes dubious pills and concoctions and expects only silence and obedience from Rosemary.
Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: William Castle
Writers: Roman Polanski, Ira Levin (book)
Cinematographer: William Fraker
Editors: Sam O'Steen, Bob Wyman
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassevetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Angela Dorian, Patsy Kelly, Elisha Cook, Emmaline Henry, Charles Grodin
US Theatrical Premiere: June 12, 1968
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Expectations were high for the first Roman Polanski film produced entirely in America. In 1962, the director’s feature debut, Knife in the Water, raised a controversial stir in the US, eventually garnering Polanski’s first Oscar (for Best Foreign Language Film). His next three European efforts--Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)—entrenched Polanski as a wry and devious creator of uncomfortable thrills and sexual dysfunction, with some critics citing his “European” style as freer and more provocative than American thrillers at the time. Lured to Hollywood by producers William Castle and Robert Evans, Polanski was handed Ira Levin’s bestselling novel Rosemary’s Baby and asked if a powerful film could be made from it. Polanski responded by making one of the greatest American horror movies, wicked and possibly hopeless but also surprisingly sincere—a metaphor for the victimization undergone by women in modern American culture.
Polanski’s cynicism is at first disguised and smuggled into the film: initially, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) seem like happy newlyweds. He’s a smug but charismatic actor who, Rosemary constantly offers, “was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross and a lot of radio and television”; she’s a pixyish young woman who at least appears content to play the happy housewife. There are hints at Rosemary’s dissatisfaction with her current position, though, especially on the first night that the Woodhouses meet the boisterous elderly couple next door, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). Ruefully admitting she hasn’t seen much of the world, Rosemary is also asked if she follows an organized religion (providing ominous foreshadowing). She responds: “I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know.” There’s a sense that Rosemary’s traditional upbringing has limited her perception of the world, an unfulfilled curiosity that is suggested but never voiced by Rosemary.
Childhood innocence and brutality are jarringly juxtaposed from the start. At a dinner with their writer friend Hutch (Maurice Evans)—who, as the only sympathetic male character in the film, is doomed to a grisly fate—Guy and Rosemary are told that their ornate Upper West Side building, the Bramford, was home to the Trench Sisters around the turn of the century. These sisters were only two witches in a coven that seemed to spread from this very building; they were later revealed to have cooked and eaten several children, their bones later found on the premises. It’s no coincidence that the Woodhouses and Hutch are devouring a cooked lamb throughout this conversation. More literally, the Woodhouses’ decision to have a baby is presented emotionlessly, as though they’re completing a business transaction; by the time the endless prenatal pain and condescending instructions from male doctors commence, there is little joy or optimism to be had from Rosemary’s pregnancy.
It eventually becomes clear that the tellingly-named Guy has agreed to offer Rosemary as the mother of Satan’s spawn, in exchange for some witchcraft-induced professional success. The scene in which Rosemary is drugged and raped by Satan is about as surreal and horrifying as American movies come, especially for Hollywood (albeit a “New Hollywood” that was in its inaugural stages in 1968). Rosemary imagines herself alone on a mattress, floating out to sea; suddenly she’s on a yacht drenched with hazy sunshine, where neighbors from her building usher her to a bedroom below. (Spotting Hutch on the docks ashore, Rosemary asks if he can come along; she’s told by a coven member, “Sorry—Catholics only.”) She is stripped, tied down, and covered with red paint, observed all along by a throng of witches; she pictures, at first, Guy having sex with her, until the matted, animal-like paws and slitted yellow eyes reveal a different beast entirely. In the midst of this violation, Rosemary pictures a Catholic cardinal approaching her, bearing the same tannis-root charm given to her by the Castevets; he forces her to kiss his ring to be forgiven for “not coming to visit him sooner.” The scene is a dense and fascinating visualization of the movie’s primary themes—namely, the hostile intersection of patriarchy, the nuclear family, sexual exploitation, and religious conservatism in modern American life—that also happens to be terrifying to watch.
This is also a morbidly revealing moment regarding the life, aesthetic, and career of Roman Polanski. The son of a Jewish father and a Roman-Catholic mother—both of whom were imprisoned in concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of Poland (his mother died in Auschwitz)—Polanski often targeted organized religion as an object of ridicule and satire. A Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?” appears later in the film; Polanski, a pronounced atheist, would answer with an emphatic “yes” (as does Roman Castevet in the film’s climax). Ultimately, Rosemary’s Catholic faith (tenuous though it may be) does nothing to protect her from the forces of evil surrounding her; what’s more, the Catholic church and the Castevets’ coven may be flipsides of the same ideological coin, both attempts to constrain and control people through religious doctrine. This scene's carnal images of claustrophobia and warped domesticity would run throughout Polanski’s career, usually conveyed with a similar pitch-black humor and dreamlike visual style. Put simply, film analysts could dissect this one sequence as a key to unlocking the stylistic and thematic obsessions of Polanski’s work.
Polanski, of course, is not often labeled a feminist director. Aside from the notorious rape case brought against him by a 13-year-old, his marriage to Sharon Tate was, according to many Hollywood friends, built on the conservative gender roles for which Guy is chastised in Rosemary’s Baby. It’s also clear that later Polanski films like Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate do not provide very positive representations of women. However, much like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Rosemary’s Baby is a case of a sexist director making a powerful feminist film. The men are unanimously awful (aside from poor, kindly Hutch); one of many examples has Guy refusing to allow her to see a second obstetrician because it would be “unfair to Dr. Sapirstein.” The Catholic church, the medical profession, and domestic life more generally are seen as patriarchal and oppressive, spheres of American life in which women are exploited and silenced. The paisley yellow wallpaper in the areas that Rosemary inhabits—the kitchen, the bedroom, even the indeterminate space in which she is raped—seems like a direct reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, given how frequently the motif appears. The eerie sound of a ticking clock, meanwhile, during Rosemary’s rape and many of her most frightened moments recalls Linda Williams’ article on “Film Bodies”, with the emphasis on time in pornography, horror, and melodrama (three “body genres” which might be said to intersect in Rosemary’s Baby). Although Polanski’s earlier Repulsion is often posited as a feminist horror movie, Rosemary’s Baby is infinitely more humane and complex in allegorizing how women are exploited in modern life.
The horror-movie atmosphere is ably evoked by Polanski and his talented crew. William Fraker’s clever cinematography often reveals empty spaces and isolates characters in order to ratchet up a sense of dread; my favorite example is a static shot of cigar smoke drifting forebodingly across an empty doorway. Krzysztof Komeda’s music, meanwhile, offers us sadistic lullabies, conflating the lilting tone of a nursery rhyme with something ominous and off-key. Just as vital as the aesthetic precision, however—a rigorous control over tone and style for which Polanski soon became known—is the human element provided by the cast, especially Mia Farrow. Rosemary’s Baby is doubtlessly a horror movie, but it’s also a drama about a pregnant woman who is unsure if she wants to bear a child and finds herself terrorized by those that are supposed to love her. In the role that made her a star, Farrow exudes a poignant blend of strength and vulnerability, trust and terror; there is nothing campy or sardonic about the fear she undergoes. (Audience identification with Farrow might have been even more powerful for 1968 audiences, who were certainly aware that her then-husband Frank Sinatra served her divorce papers on set one day because she had the nerve to pursue her own acting career.) Perhaps never again would Polanski have the benefit of such a strong actress to create an indelible and multifaceted female character.
Rosemary’s Baby in some ways kicked off an obsession with the devil in American movies, running through The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). The theme of Satanism and inherent evil acted as a strong allegory for the sins then committed by the American government, not to mention metaphors of violence and invasion more generally. The colonization of Rosemary, in this case, serves to indict those parts of American culture that would oppress women, seeing them ultimately as child-bearers and mothers. Polanski is a director all too familiar with the real-world atrocities that humans are capable of, a pessimism which surely contributes to the mood of encroaching dread he evokes so powerfully. Despite Rosemary’s Baby’s occasionally campy tone (provided especially by Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet), it ends up as one of Polanski’s sincerest films, demonstrating great sympathy for yet another victim in a godless world.