Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 October 2005
Source Paramount DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Rosemary’s Baby’s distinction as a horror film is its resolute lack of any true “horror” elements — even the revelations of the film’s final sequence never grant us a single special-effects shot of the baby itself. There aren’t even the Grand Guignol moments that Polanski favours in, say, Repulsion (the hands leaping from the wall) or The Tenant (Trelkovsky’s crawl up the stairs). Instead, Polanski’s approach is very muted and underplayed, with an overriding ambiguity: for much of the film we are deliberately left in doubt as to whether there really is a witches’ coven next door in pursuit of Rosemary’s unborn child, or if it is all a product of Rosemary’s alienation, paranoia and gradual mental collapse, thus aligning her character with those of Carole in Repulsion and Trelkovsky in The Tenant.
Of course, the “objective reality” of the story is that the coven exists, and Polanski is masterful in the little hints that he places in the early part of the film, strange or disturbing touches to what he himself called the soap-opera narrative of this young attractive couple, housewife Rosemary and struggling actor Guy Woodhouse, and their move into an old New York apartment building. The hints start right from their very first inspection of the apartment, with the scribbled note “I can no longer associate myself” (a projection of Rosemary’s own fate) left in the room that is suggested can be used as a nursery, and the huge secretary moved to block the closet (which we later learn leads into the Castevets’ apartment next door).
Then there follows a slow build-up of subsequent hints: the stories their elderly friend Hutch tells them of the history of the building and its associations with violence and witchcraft; the strange chanting that is heard from next door; the suicide of the Castevets’ houseguest; Roman Castevet’s disparaging of the Pope and religion (Rosemary’s Catholic upbringing has already been alluded to in a dream); the missing pictures from the walls of the Castevets’ apartment (in the final minutes of the film, if we remember this, we’ll see they are portrayals of Satanism); the strange locket that Minnie Castevet gives Rosemary, full of a foul-smelling “herb”; and the chocolate mousse with the strange aftertaste, also given by Minnie, that Guy insists that she finish.
The mousse leads to the film’s first dramatic climax, Rosemary’s dream of her rape by the devil, in itself confirmation for the audience that this is reality when Rosemary interrupts her dream with the now famous line: “This is no dream, this is really happening!” Rosemary’s drift into her dream is prefaced by a very ominous, low-angle shot of Guy’s face looming over her, a presage of the threat that now awaits her. The dream sequence itself is a marvelous piece of editing, recognisable images of reality merging into those of a surrealist dream world, of which the Castevets’ apartment seems a part; and then suddenly Rosemary and the audience are awakened with a jolt that this is reality.
But after this initial dramatic climax, Polanski again returns to the original quiet, underplayed tone, where, apart from certain scenes that accentuate a ticking clock, sounds and colours are muted. The emphasis is on Rosemary’s loneliness, fragility, isolation, and eventual paranoia, and we again return to the position of questioning whether all this is not in fact taking place inside Rosemary’s disturbed mind.
All of this reinforces the sense of Rosemary and Guy’s disjunction as a couple. There’s the hint of that right at the start when on their first visit to the apartment building they respond differently to the bland question “Do you have children?” Guy’s flat “No” is immediately answered by Rosemary’s “We plan to.” Indeed, just prior to the dream sequence, Rosemary is seen almost in tears as she talks to Hutch of the coldness and distance in her relationship with the “preoccupied” Guy. In this sense, Guy’s subsequent behaviour — his controlling and demanding authoritarianism towards her over, for example, which doctor to visit or over the book on witches the late Hutch leaves her — can be read not as part of Guy’s conspiring with a witches’ coven, but simply a further delineation of the male-female relationship being depicted here.
After Rosemary becomes pregnant, Polanski’s mise-en-scène stresses her absolute isolation. On the morning after the dream sequence, for example, we are given a shot down the dark hall into the brightly-lit kitchen, with the doorway framing Rosemary as she sits alone. The way the darkness of most of the image presses in on the lonely Rosemary only emphasises her isolation and vulnerability all the more. As her pregnancy advances, leaving her body wracked with constant pain, these kinds of shots occur repeatedly.
Another very striking example is a low-angle one centred on Rosemary crouched in pain on a chair. Within the shot she’s framed by the window on the left streaming with rain (adding to the sombre mood created by the shot’s dark blue tone) and by a TV set on the right showing a Hollywood musical, whose silent dancers (a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, perhaps) seem to mock Rosemary in her suffering.
Polanski also favours a lot of wide-angle shots with depth-of-field staging of characters, so that they press in on Rosemary both from right to left and from the background to the foreground. Again, the force of this is to emphasise how alone Rosemary is and how vulnerable she is to the forces (external or internal) arrayed against her.
Isolation and entrapment are stressed when the film moves to its second major climax — Rosemary “escapes” from Dr Sapirstein’s waiting room (she now believes him part of the conspiracy) and tries phoning Dr Hill, her original doctor — with a lengthy scene of her inside a glass phone booth. We see her physically confined to this booth, literally hemmed in by its close space, as she seems to be near a nervous breakdown, muttering hysterically with an added manic giggle. This sense of confinement is rhymed by another shot, after Guy and Dr Sapirstein have retrieved her from Dr Hill’s, of Rosemary squeezed between Guy and Sapirstein in the back of Dr Shand’s (another coven member) car.
Here, the coven plot now reasserts itself and Rosemary’s waking nightmare begins in earnest. At the same time, Polanski’s taste for an absurdist black humour (think of Cul-de-sac) also becomes more apparent. For example, when Rosemary thinks she has escaped into the safety of her apartment, Polanski can’t restrict the effect of showing two coven members sneaking behind her across the doorway, like out of some silent slapstick comedy.
Or, after the birth, when the audience is again encouraged to interpret everything we’ve seen as a manifestation of the central character’s depression, Rosemary, armed with a knife, hides in the nursery, slipping into the dark on screen-left. (This rhymes with a marvelous shot we’ve just had when Polanski’s camera follows Rosemary into the pitch-dark of the closet adjoining the Castevets’ apartment.) On the right sits an unused crib in which lies a strange homunculus-looking doll — a joke, no doubt, on the truth of Rosemary’s baby; and the crib starts rocking from the movement of Rosemary swishing past, threatening to alert Guy directly down the hall in the kitchen. At which point, Rosemary’s hand stretches out across the screen and stops the crib’s movement with the tip of the knife. It’s a fine mixture of Polanski’s black humour and the threat of transgressive violence.
This dark humour supplies the underlying tone for the final scenes of the film, when Rosemary ventures into the Castevets’ apartment and discovers the truth about her baby. It’s present in the incongruity of the sight of this group of middle-aged and elderly witches gathered demurely in the living room in attendance on the son of Satan; in the comic undertones to Laura-Louise’s jealousy of Rosemary as mother; and above all in the over-the-top performances of Roman and Minnie Castevet, now that nothing is hidden. They turn on this black parody of the birth of Christ, with Roman’s exultant cries of how Satan “begat a son of mortal woman… He shall redeem the despised”, answered by Minnie’s equally joyful “He chose you… He wanted you to be the mother of his only living son.”
The film’s very final shot adds a cynical twist to this black humour (a cynicism about human nature already present in the portrayal of Guy, a man willing to sacrifice his wife and potential child to the devil for the sake of his advancing his acting career) as Rosemary follows her maternal instincts to take care of her monster child, to the sounds of a Japanese frantically clicking his camera (ethnic stereotyping, anyone?). This final tone and the final sequence are all the more effective in that most of the film leading up to it has been so successfully muted, underplayed, and ambiguous.