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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rosemary's Baby (1968) Horror Pregnancy Satan

Rosemary's Baby (1968) - I was trying to come up with a way of talking about this film and really struggling. What can any writer write about a film that over the last 40 years has become one of the most revered horror films in cinematic history? What has not been written? Now I have to admit it has been a good twenty years or so since I viewed this film and when I decided to include it in my set of films on pregnancy horror I wanted to make it special. It is after all a special movie. A horror thriller made by a great director with excellent acting, but how to honor it. I decided on a couple things to start the process. First I purchased the book by Ira Levin and read it in less than a week. It holds up for the most part. It is a novel that breaths the New York, chock full of references to the neighborhoods and famous building of the city that never sleeps. Equally it draws on the time period of which it was written, Levin references the Theater of the time since his characters are actors and lovers of culture. From the plays that husband actor played in Luther (1961) and Nobody Loves an Albatross (1963), to the plays they read about, Skyscraper, Drat! The Cat, The Impossible Years, and Hot September.  It may date the book so any years later but adds a depth to the place and time. Not really something to base a blogpost around. It was shocking to also see the word "negro" when referring to black characters even though it was appropriate to the time period. It is after all the sixties when the book was written and the nation had not long since passed the civil rights act. These things though are not at the heart of the attitude of this story. So this is not the solution either.
 Like I said in my introduction I don't think there is a lot I can say about this film that has not been said.  What I am going to try to talk about now has probably been written about before but I did not see much about it in my research so here goes. The film certainly reflects some of the attitudes of the old guard sixties when it looks at the relationship that Rosemary and Guy. The patriarchal approach that Guy and the neighbors in the apartment building display feature prominently. The see Rosemary as a housewife to be taken care of, they impose there male will on her often completely ignoring her autonomy. In fact it could be argued that early in the film Rosemary was happy to be taken care of. The polite wife of a struggling actor she is happy to decorate the house and lunch with her older wise man Hutch instead of seeking work or going to college.  Even though in the sixties 38% of women worked, mostly in teaching. nursing or secretarial jobs, woman were not yet welcomed in many professional fields. Still the women's movement was on the rise, with the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman America was realizing that housewives across the country were unhappy being house wives. It was a stark wake up call about the roles of women in the 1950s and how those roles were not satisfying to many women, There is no such dissatisfaction in Rosemary she seems perfectly accepting as her role as an unemployed house wife.  In her relationship with Guy she is secondary, he makes all the decisions, she even has to beg him in order to move into the Bramford.
"Oh Guy, let's take it! Please! Please! Its such a wonderful apartment! She didn't do anything with it, old Mrs. Gardenia! That living room could be - it could be beautiful, and warm, and oh please, Guy, let's take it, alright?"
This is not a conversation between two equals discussing the finer points of why an apartment is good or bad. This is more of the child begging for the puppy in the window, hoping Daddy will say yes.She is the happy wife satisfied to spend her days buying furniture and picking curtains. She does not even do much of the physical labor, men delivery men place the newly arrived items, male painters change the colors of the apartment. Sure Rosemary directs but she does not do the manual labor.
  She does not make a pact with the devil she is the unsuspecting victim of her husband's deal. While he gets fame and success she becomes property to be used as a vessel. There is no consultation on his part, one evening after talking with Roman Castevet he sets things in motion never thinking that she is even valuable enough to give a choice to. Not only that she does not even get the chance to fight, drugged and raped by the devil she has no autonomy at all. The scene before the rape when her husband pressures her to eat the ill tasting desserts, using force of will to intimidate her, pushing her buttons knowing she is too polite and submissive to resist, at least outwardly to his will.  She would not have even remembered the events of that night had she not, finding a bit of strength, hidden the uneaten portions in a napkin. After that drugged night, when she wakes with scratches from the ordeal she can't really recall. She expresses dissatisfaction with Guy's ruse of being drunk and having sex with her while she was unconscious. Even that is a passive response to a serious act, she is not sure she likes the thought of it, not WTF! you raped me in my sleep.
  Later when in early pregnancy Rosemary is drawn and losing weight, she has a pain in her pelvis that won't go away. She goes to the older male doctor forced on her,  Dr. Sapirstein. He is from the start very pushy not wanting her to read about pregnancy, to talk to other Mothers, or to draw any conclusion about her pregnancy without consulting him first. Think about it, even the sole act that is completely in the realm of femininity is co-opted by a man. He is suddenly the expert and she is expected to strictly depend on him for direction. It is only after being cornered by her "pre-Bramford" friend at a party that she realizes that his advice could be detrimental. She knows on a deeper level that something is wrong but without the advice of other women she trusts she can not decide to act. Even then a sudden alleviation of the pain she is suffering quickly sways her back to the control of those around her. This turn in the story is necessary to move to the final act but reenforces her character as a woman looking to not be in charge of her own life. She immediately forgets all the bad that has happens and falls into line. So much so that we cut from early pregnancy to almost her due date.
This is completely necessary for the story to play out. In fact her character as a pre-women's lib wife is the character the story needs. The final act where those seeds of dissatisfaction start to grow to paranoia are essential to the third act.
  When Rosemary starts reading the book left to her by Hutch she finds such disturbing information about Satanic rituals, how they use baby blood and flesh in their spells. She thinks that her baby is at risk to Minnie, Roman and those in the house. Her suspicions when relayed to Guy are dismissed and not only that he insists on taking the book from her, treating her more like a child than an equal. Its about what he will allow and she folds and allows him to put the book high on a shelf out of reach. Talk about parent child imagery. Making it worse he later throws the book out without her permission. Her property rights are not even equal in his eyes, even though it was a gift from a friend.
  Although not reflective of the growing women's movement the role of Rosemary is fitting for the story. I am not saying that this story could not be told with a more empowered woman character in the role, its just that so much of the story relies on her doubt. So much depends on her dependence on those around her that I think it would lose something if she was more proactive in her life. She is a player in a patriarchy and never questions that structure. Even when she finally acts she does not do so out of a need to protect herself, or to empower her desires, instead it is as a Mother thinking to protect her baby. Where does she turn in this time of need? Not her female friends but to Dr. Hill the first doctor she saw. Another male authority figure who she suddenly feels safe with because he listens to her seemingly crazy story. Adding to the  stereotypes of the patriarchy Dr Hill sees her as a hysterical woman and instead of validating her in any way calls her husband and doctor to come deal with her. She is left a not women delivered into a new world of empowerment but a captive, then a source of milk, and finally a Mother with limited influence in the life of her child.
  The film closely follows the book, almost exactly. The dialog is pulled from the pages almost verbatim. There are some sections that are shortened in the film for pacing reasons. Also unlike the book Director Roman Polanski left the idea of the supernatural being part of the story as a paranoid thought. The only time you think something can be supernatural is the devil rape scene but that is filmed as a dreamy sequence and where Rosemary is drugged and might not be reality. She dreams her husband undressing her but it is mixed in with dream elements. Never really knows if she is actually having sex with the devil or if she is dreaming it as her husband fucks her in her unconscious state. So in the film even though she sees the nude neighbors chanting around she might be dreaming, we never actually see the devil just her dream interpretation of his eyes. Even though her famous line states "This is no dream, this is really happening." is followed by dream images.
Already in the book is the idea that people can believe that they are praying to Satan, but is clear that they just believe they have power never really confirming they do have power from Satan. At the end of the film when Rosemary has the initiative to stand up to the cult and claim her child as its Mother she only imagines the eyes from her dream, Polanski never shows the baby just implies that something is wrong. She says the line about his eyes but we never actually see the baby.
I love this film and recommend it mightily it is such a wonderful story full of suspense. Well directed and acted, Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet were nominated and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The screenplay was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, both Gordon and Mia Farrow won Golden Globes for Supporting actress and Best actress respectively. So if you have not seen this film take the time to get to know it.
Odds and Ends

  • In researching this film for background I ran across this sort of cool article at Cinefantastique Magazine. talking about a movie cheat in one of the more climatic scenes. Whats amazing is this same scene is described in the book almost as it appears in the film.
  • Here are a couple more reviews of this wonderful movie, one by Roger Ebert and one at the Cinefantastique site.

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