Polanski: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Few horror films linger at the fringes of your thought like Rosemary’s Baby, since Polanski’s command of his subject matter is so subliminal that even the most overt horror moments insituate themselves into the normal world of the film, and its awry fabric of everyday life, before you’ve even registred them. Apart from one dream sequence, the film never breaks this veneer of normality, intensifying it right up until the concluding scene, which is both the most horrific and the most domesticated in Polanski’s career. So much happens just beneath the surface of consciousness, and so much is only glimpsed in retrospect, that the film seems displaced from the moment of watching it, only ramifying fully as you recollect and revisit it. Whereas many horror films rupture normality, Polanski injects horror into normality, but so subliminally that you only realise it long after the fact, which makes it even eerier.
By this stage, the plot has passed into cinematic folklore. It all revolves around the Bramford, a Renaissance Revival apartment block in New York, and the young couple who buy their first property there – Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, played by Mia Farrow and John Cassavates. The film opens with a slow pan across New York and down to the Bramford, before shifting to Rosemary and Guy as they inspect what turns out to be their first home. They receive strange looks from a black man operating the elevator, from a working-class man refurbishing an apartment across the corridor from the elevator, and from the real estate agent himself, played by veteran noir actor Elisha Cook. At first, it seems like all three of these figures are inimical to the white upward mobility of the Boomer generation. As the film proceeds, however, this strangeness reconstellates around age. The elevator man and workman are the last two younger people we see in this apartment block for the first two acts, while Cook is so conspicuously beyond his original cinematic era that his age starts to seem uncanny as well.
Once we’re inside the building, Polanski reverts to the same labyrinthine space that he deploys in Repulsion and The Tenant, the other two films in his “apartment trilogy.” Nestled between these two terms as the middle term in that trilogy, Rosemary’s Baby is the most claustrophobic film of all, and features the most extravagantly reticulated spaces. Inside Rosemary and Guy’s apartment, it’s difficult to tell the time of day, so removed do these rooms seem from the world outside. On the very rare occasions when we venture back to the street, Polanski reverts to tight close-ups and hand-held cinematography to prevent the exterior world expanding out around us again. While we occasionally glimpse skyscrapers through the apartment windows, they seem to belong to a different world – or reiterate how deeply the cores of these grand old apartment complexes are still embedded within the past.
In other words, there’s a profound disconnect between these upwardly mobile Boomers and the apartment where they choose to make their home. Remaking the apartment in their own image thus becomes a primal Boomer moment of expelling the previous generation and making way for a new mindset. The first step in this process is doing away with the former tenant’s furniture, which clutters every conceivable corner. Then, they modernise all the fixtures and paint the walls white, in a desperate effort to open this decrepitude up to the wider city. Next, they make love, and plan a child, leading on to their final stage in refurbishing this space – building a nursery. Having prepared the apartment to house their generation, they conclude by preparing it for the next generation, the climax of their affective renovation.
So far, the Woodhouses seem to have seamlessly subsumed the prewar architecture of the Bramford into their procreation of the next generation. However, this is complicated by their friendship with Minnie and Steven Castavet, an old couple who live next door, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer. At first, Minnie and Steven are merely inconvenient, since they seem lonely, nosey and proprietorial of the building where they’ve lived for decades. After having dinner with them for the first time, Guy laments that “we’ll never get rid of them – they’re right across the wall.” Sure enough, Minnie and Steven begin to insinuate themselves into the younger couples’ lives, turning up at odd hours to talk, drink, or wander through their apartment. It turns out that Rosemary and Guy’s bedroom has been partitioned off from Minnie and Steven’s apartment, which makes their neighbours feel even more entitled to show up at odd hours, since they’re effectively visiting what used to be a part of their home.
As the film proceeds, however, Minnie and Steven start to take on a more unsettling valency. They’re never overtly scary, but their motivations turn a little awry, not unlike their appearances. Minnie, in particular, is always clad in weird clothes, bright and drab, overly formal and unkempt at the same time, cluttered with accessories like the décor that clutters her apartment. To some extent, this is because the older couple personify the aleatory core of the building, the generations of people who turned it into a miniature city before the Woodhouses arrived on the scene. But there’s also a broader agesploitation quality here, a sense that all it takes is a little exaggeration to make old people terrifying as a category. Time and again, Polanski resorts to odd aporia, sudden disjunctions and abrupt dislocations, to capture an emergent porosity and permeability between the worlds of these two generations. When the Woodhouses first visit the Castavets for dinner, pictures have been removed from the walls, Sidney deliberately sits at the farthest possible point in their living room, and Polanski ends with Rosemary’s point of view through the empty doorframe of the kitchen back to this same living room, where only a drift of smoke betrays the two mens’ presences.
These weird aporias and permeabilities crystallise around the partition between the two apartments, which is also the wall directly behind the Woodhouses’ bed, the only point where it’s possible to (just) hear what is happening next door. As the Castavets thus insinuate themselves into the Woodhouses’ most intimate space, they become synonymous with an emerging crisis in their marriage – or perhaps prompt that crisis, since it seems to coincide exactly with Guy’s increasingly proclivity for spending time next door. All of a sudden, Rosemary can’t communicate with Guy because he’s hanging out with the Castavets, and yet the only reason he’s hanging out with the Castavets is because he can’t communicate with Rosemary. That circular logic turns the Castavets into a broader spectre of the prewar generation, infecting Boomers with their agenda despite all Rosemary’s effort to maintain her apartment as a space specific to her and Guy. Every time they reset their relationship, and commit to open dialogue, Guy simply drifts back to the Castavets, and Rosemary is left alone.
This unusual dynamic reaches a climax at the end of the second act, when Rosemary arrives home one night to find the apartment decked with roses, before Guy appears, contrite, begging for a reconciliation, and committing to a baby. For a brief beat, the Boomer project seems intact, and yet this just prompts the Castavets to escalate and compress their intervention. First, Minnie appears at the door with some homemade chocolate mousse, and tries to intrude upon the evening, until Guy ushers her away. Second, Rosemary tries some of the mousse, and quickly loses consciousness. Third, Rosemary is subjected to a surreal dream sequence in which the Castavets, now entirely naked, perform an occult ritual upon her body with the help of all other old people in the building that they have introduced to the Woodhouses. Finally, and most horrifically, Rosemary wakes up the next morning to discover that Guy had sex with her while she was unconscious. He’s a bit sheepish, but points out that he had to take advantage of her ovulating, casually tossing out a joke about being a “necro.”
This extraordinary sequence crystalllises the central fear of Rosemary’s Baby – that the prewar generation will continue to exert their influence through the Boomer project, and compromise their ability to shape the next generation in turn. While Rosemary turns out to be pregnant as a result of this evening, the Castavets have twice displaced her from the moment of conception – first by drugging her so that she has no memory of it, and then by turning it into an act of rape by her husband. From there, they take total control of her pregnancy by telling all their neighbours the good news, in defiance of her wishes. They also insist she change her obstetrician to one of their contacts, and provide her with a mysterious daily cocktail of herbs and spices in lieu of regular medical treatment. No surprise, then, that the pregnancy starts to consume Rosemary, as she loses weight, retreats into herself, and reshapes her hair into an austere Vidal Sassoon bob, which prompts a violent repulsion in Guy, despite the fact that he still seems utterly unfazed by the fact of having raped his wife.
Guy’s reaction to the haircut is the first hint of the film’s ancillary fear – that Boomer men will discard the liberatory project, and align themselves with the very pre-war generations they once defined themselves for the status of marriage and fatherhood. In an effort to forestall that possibility, Rosemary stages a party for her friends under sixty, at which point Minnie appears, on cue, and tries to insinuate her way into the proceedings, offering to serve the food, take the coats, or perform any other obsequeious chore needed to keep any eye on the young couple and their circle of young friends. While she fails this time, her efforts make the party quite uncanny by comparison, since her lingering presence reiterates just how few young people we’ve seen in the film, especially as both Rosemary and Guy seem to have aged a decade since moving in. Even Rosemary’s new obstetrician, Abraham Sapirstein, played by Ralph Bellamy, is light years older than her original choice, “dream boat” Dr. Hill, played by Charles Grodin. Through this party, Rosemary (and Polanski) make one last effort to repopulate the apartment complex (and the film) with the vitality of the postwar generation.
While the Castavets are pointedly not invited to the party, they make their presence felt with the next stage in their plan – a terrible pain that Rosemary has developed in her abdomen, which peaks unbearably just as the party reaches its apex. In an update of Gaslight for the Boomer generation, everyone at the party insists that her pain isn’t real, apart from Rosemary’s own female friends, whose belief in her agony, and insistence that she see another doctor, prompts Guy’s next outburst and the only sustained profanity in the film. In a direct sequel to his rape, he sides with the new obstetrician and refuses to let Rosemary change doctors (“It’s not fair to Sapirstein”), as incredulous to her pain as he is credulous to the Castavets. For all his liberation, the Boomer sides with an obstetrician over his own wife.
From this point, Rosemary starts to drift away from both Guy and the Castavets, prompted in part by her research into the history of the building. Little by little, she discovers that the Castavets are direct descendents of a coven of witches, emblems of an entire generation, and then an entire nation, since their actions belong to a Gothic doppelganger of the United States, a “United Mental Force” that feeds off the flesh and blood of newborn babies. When Guy dismisses the book, and then throws it out, the film shifts towards a prison drama, as Rosemary starts to search for a way out of the Bramford, even as she becomes ever more symbiotically entwined with the couple next door. By this stage, Polanski no longer needs to focus on the bedroom partition as the medium between the two apartments, since Rosemary’s body and circumstances reject and resist every effort she makes to break free. The closer she feels to her baby, the more that both of them are absorbed into the amniotic sac of the Castavets’ apartment, which is now inside her, making it impossible to ever escape.
Nevertheless, Rosemary does try to escape the building, and her own body, starting with a desperate effort to sublet it to other tenants. When this fails, she flees into exterior space, but she’s quickly forced to take refuge in a phone booth, the correlative of the tight shots and hand-held perspectives that prevent the streetscape ever really ramifying. Meanwhile, Guy and the Castavets are largely absent over this third act, subsumed into the calm rationality of the medico-legal system that kicks in when Rosemary uses the phone booth to call the only man she can trust – Dr. Hill, her original obstetrician, and a member of her own generation. When she arrives at Dr. Hill’s surgery, she has her only moment of rest in the film, responding to his reassurances with all the catharsis that comes from simply being believed. That makes it all the more horrifying when Hill returns with Guy and Sapirstein, in a vision of pre-war and post-war generations brokering an unholy alliance through the medico-legal system, at the expense of Boomer women. It’s appropriate, in the end, that Rosemary’s husband is called Guy, since this tableau starkly insists that Boomer liberation is built on pathologising women.
Since exterior space circles back to the phone booth, and the phone booth circles back to this moment, it’s clear that Rosemary can only escape by retreating even further into the Bramford, whose core is now imprinted in her own womb anyway. This ushers in the third act, which sees Rosemary substitute the phone booth for the elevator, whence she escapes from Guy and Sapirstein back to her apartment, barricading the door behind her to defend herself against a prewar presence that is always already inside. In a creepy culmination of the film’s spatial aporia, her neighbours now tiptoe through an empty doorframe as she keeps watch on the front door, before throwing her into a strange state of dreamy unconsciousness.
The film reaches its pinnacle of tonal control when Rosemary wakes up to a weirdly intensified normality in which Guy is somehow both her regular husband and a key member of the coven. Regrettably informing her that she lost the baby, he never quite denies or addresses his part in the scene that played out when she arrived at the apartment. Instead, he’s always already been a part of the coven, much as the prewar generation has always already been a part of their Boomer mindset, and as Rosemary was always already infected with the Castavets’ herbs, as her name indicates. The impossibility of discerning an exact moment when Guy joined the coven makes it impossible to articulate his role in the coven as anything other than the glib normality with which he attributes Rosemary’s fears to postpartum depression, while telling her he has finally landed a gig in Hollywood. The coven doesn’t just disenfranchise women personally, but enfranchises men professionally, propelling Guy into a Hollywood-sanctioned mobility and normality that can only come with Rosemary’s complete desecration.
Unlike so many horror films, then, Rosemary’s Baby never quite breaks normality and doesn’t present us with a climactic moment of transformation or revelation. The closest we get is Rosemary’s discovery of a secret passage between the two apartments, a hidden door that renders her refurbished spaces totally continuous with the Castavets’ old-world décor, which she now sees with all the paintings intact on the walls. Even breaking into this space doesn’t rupture the intensified normality of it all, as the coven greet her, and explain their Satanic motives, without shedding any of their doddering pre-war charm, while Guy rationalises his own deal with the coven as a business transaction like any other. Nor do the coven seem concerned to control Rosemary in any way, presumably because they know that they have the ultimate weapon – her baby, who is indeed alive, housed in an elaborate black lace crib.
In the extraordinary final moments of the film, the coven make it clear that renouncing Satan means renouncing motherhood: “You’re trying to get me to be his mother.” “Aren’t you his mother?” To mother her child, Rosemary has to accept the coven’s agenda, which she does, only commenting briefly on her baby’s demonic eyes, which we never directly see. Instead, in the absence of any overt special effects, the film ends with an awrly intensified motherhood, as Rosemary rocks the baby, and comes close to her first real smile of the film, at the exact moment when Sapirstein arrives to witness the end point of his obstetric service. If the perennial Boomer question was how to recover marriage and parenthood from systems of patriarchal inequality, then Rosemary’s Baby suggests that this question is part of the problem – and that marriage and parenthood is, in and of itself, fruit of the poisoned tree. To reproduce Boomer ideals, the films insists, Boomers have to discard reprofuturity itself, and conceive of broader forms of social reproduction, since the only alternative is for Boomer women to feel the full-brunt of pre-war conservatism, remediated through the Boomer men who initially seemed to have consigned it to the past, all the guys that Guy embodies here.
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