Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Blind Spot: Rosemary's Baby Review

Hello, all! My pal Ryan McNeill over at The Matinee invited me to take part in his Blind Spot series. And, for my first entry, I chose a horror classic that I had never seen before, Roman Polanksi's Rosemary's Baby.

Have you ever ignored little warning signs from someone? A slip of the tongue here, a weird exchange there? You give people the benefit of the doubt, but it happens more often - until the other shoe drops, and you realize you don't know the other person well at all. Now, I'm not saying you're going to wake up in the middle of a Satanic ritual, but that dynamic plays a large part in Rosemary's Baby.

Of course, it all starts simply, with a young Manhattan couple looking at a new apartment. Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) are young and in love, and they're oh-so excited to be taking a gorgeous flat whose elderly tenant recently died. Everything seems bright for the pair, even though an old friend warns them that lots of unfortunate things happened in the building they're moving into...

Guy is a struggling actor. Rosemary spends her days at home, springing to life when she gets to talk to the other tenants, her pals, or her hubby. Of course, the interplay between the leads lends Rosemary's Baby another thematic aspect - that of the ignored and dismissed woman.

Over and over, Rosemary expresses her grievances and concerns politely, gently. She's the very image of a modest woman who stands up for herself softly and chooses her battles. Her overbearing husband apologizes a lot, sure, but it raises the point that he puts himself in a position to apologize a lot, and that Rosemary simply stays pleasant and complacent...

In this way, Polanski's film manages to build a slow sense of tension and unease. Little interludes add a lot - like flashbacks to Rosemary's Catholic upbringing, or her dreams, which are confusing and unsettling. These are nicely filmed, abstract moments - a pan up from Rosemary in bed gradually turns into a dream sequence, the camera movement neatly conveying a sense of "elevation" as we go into the world of our lead's mind.

And yet this same marital bed does not feel like a safe or loving place. Whenever Rosemary is there, it seems like she's trapped - her slender frame is often immobile, as if in constraints. Similarly, she's always alone there; Guy sleeps on "his" side of the bed, turned over, away from his wife. Even though she has company often, the slowly-unravelling bride is generally isolated: from the outside world, from her spouse, from other people...

But you can see it when our heroine finally gets to spend time with her old friends. Everyone notices how pale and skinny she looks, despite her pregnancy. Soon, Guy tries to dismiss the advice she gets from them, telling her that she can't leave her obstetrician. This argument that could take the film in a whole new direction dissipates as, just then, the baby starts moving. You get the sense that fate has it in for Rosemary, providing just the right interruptions to prevent her from asking more questions or from standing up for herself more. The experience of watching this film is like seeing a noose tighten, more and more...

In this time period - 1968 - women are slotted into a secondary role. Housewife, mother... this era had a more limited place for ladies, and they were afforded fewer choices by society. And a large part of this picture's horror is centered on the lead's relatively helpless state. Although I doubt this context was important to the filmmaker at the time, it stays with me because Rosemary is in another weakened, helpless state: pregnancy. Pregnancy after a nightmare involving an orgy, her husband, and a monster - a nightmare she wakes up from with real scratches on her sides...

Roman Polanski made RB into a slow, sumptuous film. A lot of time is put into showing the relationship between Guy and Rosemary, and a lot of time is given over to exchanges with their landlord and their new neighbors. The main set - that of the apartment building - is used quite well, becoming a character unto itself.

It may be that this movie is meant to be seen as an early experience for a moviegoer. As such, while I was impressed with many moments in Rosemary's Baby, I did not really like the movie. There is so much improbable behavior in this realistic film - and it is realistic, with women discussing their cycles, or locking Guy out of a private "ladies' conversation" - and my suspension of disbelief was strained like never before. Rosemary is innocent, but not helpless, so it becomes harder and harder to believe that she accepts the things that she accepts for as long as she does. Similarly, it seems that Rosemary has no family to rely on, only a handful of friends...

I often focus on plot and character, and if RB's main sequences had played more like its dream segments, then I would've been able to accept what happens more. It feels like much of the film is building toward the end, to the exclusion of other little moments that could've made the overall work more credible. Or maybe I'm just annoyed by how thoroughly Rosemary is turned into an object, and the limited way that she reacts to this.

Psychological horror is a very particular thing. When people seem too panicky or too slow to pick up (or act) on danger, it can undermine the foundation needed to make the movie effective. I think that's what happened to me here. Or, if the film had been about people changing Rosemary from a subject into an object, then I would've been much more satisfied on a thematic level. Regardless, all praise goes to Farrow and Cassavetes and the rest of the cast, as all they do a fine job here.


  1. Seems as though I like this one a bit more than you, and I only came to it for the first time about four years ago!

    The timeframe of the movie might lend a little bit of muscle to its plausibility. We forget sometimes the dynamics of relationships in the late sixties and how they could be used against women at any turn. Time and again, Rosemary thinks "something's wrong"...and yet nobody - not her husband, not her doctor, not her neighbours - will give it any credence. They all want her to sit at home with her bare feet up and wait out the nine months like a good girl.

    There's enough worry and stress surrounding most pregnancies considering how much could potentially go wrong - the last thing any potential mom wants to be is ignored.

    Anyway, glad to see you liked-if-not-loved-it...gotta hand it to the movie though: that's a pretty darned disturbing finale!

  2. Even more than racial issues, it's the gender stuff that strikes me the most in older film and TV. I hate seeing people marginalized or controlled, and Rosemary is a vivid woman who had a very strict upbringing. She carries herself like a proper adult - not getting super-angry at a small fight, trying to handle disagreements with grace...

    In this movie, though, she has so little agency, and when she is responsive, it's so effusive that... Well, it's a horror movie, and overreaction is a key aspect of that. But it's hard to watch someone lack any control over their life like this. I don't think the film was commenting on it so much as it was using the stereotypes of the time to craft a horror flick.

    Yeah, that conclusion was creepy as all get-out. Very impressive, and I kind of wonder if much of this movie's appeal is based on that ending alone.

  3. Rosemary's girlfriends are self-confident, modern women. One might describe them as bossy eg. pushing Guy out of the kitchen and locking him out without trouble.

    They are very vocal insisting something is wrong and that Rosemary should see another doctor post-haste etc.

    Rosemary is "chosen" by the coven BECAUSE she is docile and easily manipulated. None of her girlfriends, who are obviously "feminists" (womens' lib was in full swing in the 60s) would have served the purpose.

    In any case, the film is an undisputed masterpiece and your fiddling with inconsequentials doesn't change that fact.

    1. Thanks for speaking up, "Anonymous," but I didn't read the friends as being "modern" or "bossy." I mean, women pushing men out of a kitchen, especially to discuss "womens' bodies stuff," is probably only slightly less old than kitchens and patriarchal society. Rosemary gets the "mod girl" haircut later, but her pals struck me as being like oh so many New York women of that generation.

      Yet I never took Rosemary to be an obvious target by virtue of being docile and easily manipulated - at least, not at the start. She's a sucker for love, and deeply trusting of the man that she chose for herself, and I saw those as her fatal weaknesses. I don't know how the cult could've thought "oh, yeah, she'll go along with anything Guy says" after meeting her.

      I'm not entirely sure which things you are referring to as "inconsequentials," or how I'm fiddling with them, but you're right that I'm not in much of a position to argue against RB's status as a masterpiece. I'm not even sure how I could attack its status as such, effectively/successfully. I can only say that it didn't really work for me. If a horror film doesn't work for you, it falls a bit flat - much the same way that Vertigo was a bomb when it came out, and later was perceived as a masterpiece. Btw, Vertigo ALSO didn't work very well for me (I think it's strength is in its visuals and especially the score, and that the latter is what captivates people) - so maybe I just have a problem suspending disbelief for older films steeped in chauvinism and abuse of women.

      Despite my confusion as to what your last sentence meant, I appreciate that you made me re-read this post, as there were a few typos here, and I'm not sure how they showed up. Thanks again!


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