1968 // USA // Roman Polanski // October 2, 2011 // DVD - Paramount (2000)
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Roman Polanski’s most thematically absorbing and persuasive works are what I term his Dupe Films: Stories in which sinister forces manipulate and mislead the protagonist, who plays a central but unwitting role in their Machiavellian plots. In the films that comprise this narrative current—Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Ninth Gate, and The Ghost Writer—the hero eventually becomes aware of such exploitation and subsequently challenges their exploiters. However, in each of these films, whatever fleeting successes the protagonist claims are outweighed by the triumph of the puppet-masters in the end. Needless to say, Polanski’s Dupe Films are exceptionally bleak works, especially in aggregate, as they posit a world where the hapless victim of a conspiracy has no realistic hope of outflanking the coldblooded conspirators. The Tenant and The Ghost Writer (and to a lesser extent Rosemary’s Baby) are also secondarily “Dupe” Films in the sense that the hero follows the footsteps of an unfortunate predecessor, down to sleeping in their bed and tracing their route turn-by-turn.
Rosemary’s Baby offers the most uncluttered and successful expression of this narrative framework. It was Polanski’s fourth English-language film in as many years, and yet the script exhibits the kind of straightforward elegance that few native British or American filmmakers ever muster, particularly when it comes to the treacherous realms of supernatural horror. I hesitate to label it the best of the Dupe Films. Chinatown is undoubtedly a more daring and exceptional film overall, and The Tenant’s cracked-mirror reality has a visceral appeal for me, but it’s hard to deny that Rosemary’s Baby is an exemplar of clean-and-simple storytelling when laid alongside the other Dupe Films. No feature with a 136-minute running time can be brisk, but every minute of Rosemary’s Baby feels necessary and proper, like the individual stones in a garden labyrinth spiraling into an ever-tightening circle. Polanski relies on thriller and horror narrative conventions that were familiar even in 1968 (and are now downright mildewy), but somehow the film never seems schematic, even when the viewer can see exactly where it is going.
The film is an outlier in other ways: It is the only feature among the aforementioned five with a screenplay credited solely to Polanski, and also the only to boast a female protagonist. Needless to say, Rosemary Woodhouse’s (Mia Farrow) femininity (and fecundity) are essential to the film’s story and its thematic preoccupations. Perhaps it’s a little hackneyed that the emotional terrain of Polanski’s most prominent female lead is so thoroughly dominated by the twin motives of fear and protectiveness. Consider that Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, The Ninth Gate’s Dean Corso, and The Ghost Writer’s nameless hero react with bristling resentment at being played for fools, and pursue their manipulators more out of offended pride than anything. (The Tenant’s cringing protagonist, Trelkowski, is the exception that proves the rule, as his malevolent neighbors aim to transform him into his female predecessor.) Still, Rosemary’s personality has a willowy realism that matches Farrow’s physical presence. She's lamentably naive, but also a little unruly, and posseses enough aptitude to ferret out the Satanic conspiracy that has designs for her unborn child. (Although, admittedly, she requires a male character’s posthumous help to point her to a crucial clue.)
Indeed, Rosemary’s Baby may not be a feminist film, but it portrays the social obstacles that women confront with devastating clarity. One quickly loses count of how many times characters patronizingly soothe Rosemary’s fears, or utilize gender-tinted guilt tactics to manipulate her. Ironically, Rosemary isn’t especially threatening to the male-dominated social order (secular or Satanic) that surrounds her. Her rather traditionalist yearning to settle down and have two or three children appears to be genuine, and she exhibits an eager-to-please submission to the demands of her actor husband’s (John Cassavetes) vanity. However, even her tiniest defiances are sins in the eyes of her devil-worshipping tormentors, who ruthlessly quash the influence of the outside world while nudging her in their preferred direction. Polanski tips his hand by having all the male characters react with revulsion to Rosemary’s ultra-short haircut: Stray outside the role assigned to you and you will face scorn.
Such cultural criticisms are consistent with the broader conflict of traditionalism vs. modernism that the film establishes. Following the path of many horror films, Rosemary’s Baby exploits the dichotomy of the old and the new for its thematic ends. However, unlike, say, Night of the Living Dead, the film’s anxieties are directed backwards to the fossilized past rather than forward to an alien future. Fear of aging and the elderly pervades the film, but its terrors are more complex than mere illness and mortality. Rosemary, for all her professions of maternal longing, seems to sense that she will lose something ephemeral (Her freedom? Her hipness?) after she becomes a mother and locks her life into a particular, conformist narrative. The Satanists profess a forward-thinking ideology that rejects Christian moral norms and declares a glorious Year One, but their designs for Rosemary are dreadfully retrograde, a point underlined by the fact that the film’s diabolists are all old enough to be cashing Social Security checks.
Disturbed by all the time her husband is spending with the dotty neighbors forty years his senior, Rosemary at one point proposes a party with their “old” (read: young) friends. It’s telling that once Rosemary’s female peers have a moment to sit down and listen to her miseries, they acknowledge and bolster her fears rather than dismissing them. Neither is it a mistake that Rosemary’s Satanic obstetrician warns her away from the advice of such young women, while urging her to take herbal concoctions rather than modern vitamin pills. The demonic is explicitly connected to the old-fashioned and traditional, down to the the “Anti-Virgin Mary” role that the more pragmatic Satanists have in mind for Rosemary. There’s something gratifyingly audacious about a film in which the gravest threat to a Luciferian cabal is not the Church (which is complicit with Rosemary's demonic rape in her drug-addled dreams), but a few liberated and levelheaded women.