Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Directed by Roman Polanski

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After watching this film with my roommates, I remarked how this didn’t scare me like modern horror films.  I think we are desensitized to movie violence and jump-scares in a way that this film feels incredibly tame.  To me, movies have so much more to react against today than they did in the 60s, at least in terms of what audiences have already been exposed to.  We’ve seen war footage in a way people in the 60s might not yet (though they soon would).  The idea of a woman dealing with the devil might have been scary in a much more religion-oriented world 50 or so years ago than it does today.  If you were to pitch this story to a studio head, you could say “a woman learns she’s pregnant with the devil,” and the studio head would say, “and?”

My roommate suggested that there was a change in movies, specifically horror movies, following the Manson Murders in 1969.  This might be true, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that because those crimes were so disturbing and given so much media coverage, combined with the fact that they occurred in Hollywood, that movie horror was approached differently.  This idea has nothing really to do with this movie in particular, but Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, infamously was one of the Manson family victims.

Polanski directed the 1974 film Chinatown, and the influence of the Tate murder can be clearly seen by the way the story ends.

Anyways, I don’t know what that all has to do with Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about.  This film isn’t that scary, though it is certainly eerie.  It’s more amusing at times when I think it’s trying to be frightening.  There are no jump-scares (thankfully, because those do scare me), and the horror element of this film takes a lot of time to develop.  Knowing what the story is about, I found the first half of Rosemary’s Baby quite boring.

I still found it to be a very good movie, because I felt like the story didn’t prioritize the premise or the horror over the characters.  This film is about Rosemary and her increasing lack of control.  She wants so badly to become pregnant and help build a very picturesque life, like something out of 1960s Crate & Barrel.  Rosemary (Mis Farrow) is attractive as is her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes).  They move into a very nice apartment in a beautiful, gothic building.  Rosemary’s life feels too good to be true, but only because we know it is.

This appearance of the perfect life is undercut by increasingly bizarre and horrific occurrences as well as the distance between her and her husband, a struggling but committed actor.  The elderly couple next doors, Minnie and Roman, foster a young woman whom Rosemary meets shortly before she throws herself from a window to her death.  In her place, the couple adopts Rosemary, inviting her and Guy over for dinner and feeding them constantly.  When Rosemary becomes pregnant, after a nightmarish scene that turns out to be real in which the devil gets down and dirty, the elderly couple helps find Rosemary a doctor as well as feed her a particularly odd diet of roots and herbs and strange shakes.

Eventually, a recently deceased friend sends Rosemary a clue that helps convince her that the neighbors are devil worshippers.  She presents Guy with this evidence, but he doesn’t believe her.  Rosemary begins to have a nervous breakdown, no longer in control of not only her body, but in some ways her mind as well.

She is betrayed by another doctor whom she runs to, and the original doctor returns to help her give birth to what turns out to be a demon.  Rosemary staggers into the neighbors apartment where the devil worshippers hold a sparsely-attended celebration for the new baby.  Guy is in attendance (he bought in), and everyone keeps their distance from Rosemary, looking at her both like a celebrity and like a homeless person who wandered in off the street.  They’re unsure if they should detain her or pat her on the back.

Rosemary appraoches her baby, at first appalled but then finally tender.  This is, after all, her child.

I think this film satirizes family in addition to religion and the control of a patriarchy world.  We’re meant to be horrified alongside Rosemary, though she might be a step ahead of us if were in her position.  Rosemary seems to suspect the people around her even before we would, had we not known the premise of the movie before watching it.  Though this events of this story are extreme, they paint a picture of suspicion that might not be unfounded.

Guy buys in to the demon worship, possibly only because it helped him get an important role that could help make his career.  If this sounds familiar it’s because you’re thinking of Scientology.  Guy goes from looking like an idyllic dude, strong, handsome, passionate and caring (and able to afford this expensive apartment), and in the end he’s a weak-willed sheep, unable to comprehend his wife’s distress.

In the very end, though, Rosemary becomes complicit in the devil worship because she loves her child.  She wants a child so bad that she’s willing to overlook the fact that he’s literally the devil.  Maybe this isn’t meant to mock her, because she does express disgust and terror when she first sees her child, but it does suggest we re-examine her interest in getting pregnant earlier in the story.  Is it about raising a healthy, happy child or is it about creating the life she thinks she’s expected to live?  Is she just having a child because that’s what she’s supposed to do now that she and Guy have the house?  Their relationship never really feels all that stable once we get to know them.  They both seem a little lost in their own worlds, only staying together because that’s what the movie (and culture) expects of them, as if they walked out of the tabloids with no discernible, real characteristics.  Rather than bridging that gap between them, they decide to have a kid because they’re running through the motions.

Or maybe that’s not what it’s about, but I did feel that Rosemary’s final moment of tenderness created a gap between her and the audience.  We were always right there with her, but this decision alienates her from us.  Or maybe we are meant to understand it.  She is still the victim, her caring sensibilities taken advantage of by another group of people.

The devil worshippers, now they’re quite a bunch.  They’re not really that sinister, just kind of irritating.  In the end there really aren’t that many of them, so they never feel like that much of a threat.  I’m more annoyed with them (particularly the woman who aggressively rocks the devil’s carriage) than frightened by them.

The feeling I had at the end of this film was that they all suck, and we all suck.  Maybe it’s because Rosemary bought in that I felt like I had bought in.  Because she was complicit, I felt complicit.  This is a world we were given but are also helping create and give to the next world.  You know who the real victim is?  The baby devil.  What if there were a sequel that focused on nature vs. nurture, and we see that the devil has no interest in becoming a devil?  I mean, when he cries, he sounds like a regular baby, meaning he’s not all that sinister.

So this is all to say, I still can’t quite make out what to think of this film.  It’s unsettling more than it’s horrifying.  As the walls close in on Rosemary, I found myself increasingly and appropriately uncomfortable.  Everyone felt like they were against her, and as far as we could tell, they were.  The world of this film feels like our world and it feels barren and unsafe.  And I think that’s what Polanski wanted, to show this view of the world, particularly in regards to its treatment of women.

One last thing: Rosemary’s haircut.  It strikes me now, that her decision to cut her hair short is an effort to regain control of herself and to react against the societal standard of what a woman looks like and stands for.  Guy dislikes her haircut because it challenges his idea of how a woman is meant to appear.  I also think that this is a way of showing Rosemary’s growth.  Though she always wanted to become pregnant, she now begins to investigate what is happening with her pregnancy.  Some people might willfully look the other way, so long as their baby is declared to be healthy.  Rosemary’s investigation into her own pregnancy, in some ways is an investigation (I think) into why women get pregnant at all.  This is in terms of who really decides what a woman does with her body?  Does Rosemary, at the beginning of the story, wish to get pregnant because that’s what she truly wants or because that’s what she’s told to want?  Her character growth is an analysis of control, both over women’s bodies and their minds.  Who is really in control?  It’s probably not a small group of old devil worshippers, but it doesn’t matter.  This film is about Rosemary regaining control, and in the end her tale might be tragic because she does what the worshippers want.  On the other hand, maybe it’s not because she decides to stick by the baby, even in its demonic glory.

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