Great Films: Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968, USA)

It is easy now to underestimate both the impact and influence of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby these days, but it must be remembered that it is still both one of cinema’s seminal thrillers, and a cast-iron landmark in the development of the horror genre. It is also, though the movement would like to deny Polanski this, an important early cinematic feminist text, perhaps the finest examination of the idea of the female experience of childbirth.

At the centre of the film is our epnoymous protagonist, Rosemary Woodhouse, played by Mia Farrow. After the opening languorous aerial shot of New York City, slowly converging on a shot of a rather gothic-looking apartment building, we are introduced to her and her actor husband Guy, a strugging actor. They appear to lead a seemingly ordinary vaguely-bohemian urban existence, and their relationship may not be Hollywood-perfect, but is homely and realistic – they occasionally fight, but more often than not are happy in each other’s company. The couple are newly moved into the aforementioned tenement block, where they encounter their new neighbours the Castavets, an elderly couple who seem personable, if a little nosey. Rosemary, whilst doing her laundry, also encounters Terry, a girl who has been taken in by the Castavets, who elucidates that the elderly couple had taken her in from off the streets; she soon meets an untimely death, a defenestration onto the sidewalk below.

From this point onwards, we escape the “Doris Day film” aesthetic that the film had thusfar adopted, and enter our slow descent into a Dante-like Inferno. A stroke of luck befalls Rosemary’s husband – the actor he was understudying for in a theatre production is blinded in a freak accident, leaving Guy in the lead role of a major play. At the same time, the couple agree to have a baby together, but during the proposed night of conception Rosemary passes out, and dreams that a horrifying beast rapes her. She later discovers she has fallen pregnant, but begins to suspect that all is not right with the pregnancy, and that she may be the centre of a macabre plot involving the Castavets, her new obstetrician, and perhaps even her husband. Was his ‘lucky break’ a result of something more sinister?

Thrillers, particularly in the Hitchcock mould, tend to teasingly throw the viewer occasional scraps of useful information, and the first act of the film offers much exposition, seemingly too much, in a series of quickly-cut scenes. We get the sense that something is afoot very early on, but perhaps initially share our protagonist’s optimism that all is well, and that there is no consipiracy against her and her unborn child. However, as the narrative unfolds, there is a strange dichotomy between this and the increasingly concrete sense that yes, actually our worst fears are being realised. Our expectations are being toyed with here; Polanski consistently gives us proof of a sinister plot, but even as the tension gradually rises and rises and rises, there is perhaps still the nagging doubt that it could all be the wild imagination of the pregnant and vulnerable Rosemary.

Central to this is the very idea of pregnancy; a new, unseen life existing within a woman’s body, both dependent and independent on its host. The film is keen to stress the effect on the mothers physiology; the pains, the initial loss of weight followed by the later gains. But more importantly we experience the psychological toll of the process; the sense of expectation, coupled with the fears and anxieties associated with it. David Cronenberg once said of his seminal body-horror Dead Ringers that the idea of a film about twin gynecologists held more of a sense of horror to the male viewer than the female viewer. It seems to me the same can be said of Rosemary’s Baby, and laterly in Ridley Scott’s Alien; the idea of childbirth being a mystery, a thing of fascination, but also an intimidating subject of fear for the male psyche.

Mia Farrow’s central performance is astonishing. Her Rosemary begins the film as a self-confident, bubbly and bright boho, but ends an emotional and neurological wreck. One astounding scene in a phone-booth, and later in a doctor’s office, shows her ability and range as an actor. I loved her in her Woody Allen collaborations (Alice, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, to name but a few), but here she gives her most rounded, attention-grabbing performance. John Cassavetes has always been too theatrical for me, particularly in his self-directed films, and here is no exception, though i guess Guy is supposed to be a little over-the-top. The filmis perhaps stolen, though, by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the ageing Castavet couple, whose mixture of nosiness and enigmaticness provide a great deal of the suspense of the film.

Rosemary’s Baby is in many ways a landmark film. It was Polanski’s first Hollywood film, and certainly his best until Chinatown (1974), demonstrating his distinctive style, and his complete mastery of mise en scene. But, like The Exorcist, it is most important for giving a new respectability to the horror genre, which had been much maligned previously. It’s influence on this area of cinema history, whether in direct reference, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria or Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, or in indirect tribute such as most of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, that may prove to be its greatest legacy. It’s a bloody great film too.

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