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Rosemary’s Baby

  • YEAR: 1968
  • DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski
  • KEY ACTORS: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmur
  • CERTIFICATE: 18
  • IMBD SCORE: 8.0
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 2/5

✔️ It passes the Bechdel Test without any trouble!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies…
❌ …I don’t want to fuck the cast, although Mia Farrow’s pixie cut is iconic…
❌ …and it’s really not sex positive!!
✔️ I will give it a mark for being rewatchable. It’s horrifying and disturbing and traumatic and terrifying, but it is enthralling.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The excellent poster for Rosemary’s baby

[CW: rape, marital rape, emotional abuse, gaslighting, religious, medical and pregnancy manipulation, misogyny]

Back in February, when writing about American Beauty, I predicted that I might write about Rosemary’s Baby. And of course I was going to write about it – it’s one of the best horror movies ever made and that’s before we even consider its obvious feminist themes! But also, exactly as I did, it’s one of the movies often highlighted when asking whether or not we can separate the art from the artist, something that I still believe is impossible. I had described Rosemary’s Baby as a ‘fucked up film made by a fucked up man,’ and I haven’t changed my mind.

But watching the film again and reading around it, I’ve realised that this is too simple a statement. Rosemary’s Baby is a fucked up film and Roman Polanski is a fucked up man, but Rosemary’s Baby is also a movie that paints an extraordinarily feminist picture of a strong woman, battling against the absolute worst of the Patriarchy. It may be a horror film about the actual Devil but it’s the men in the film that are the most terrifying. Men that Rosemary should be able to trust; men that should have been looking out for her. Rosemary is in danger because of those men, not because of supernatural forces. Or, as Slant described it, Rosemary’s Baby is a ‘horror movie in which the malevolence of Satan is eclipsed by the maliciousness of a woman’s right to choose being violated.’

And, frankly, it creeps me out all the more knowing that *Roman Polanski* has made a movie with such a precise and strong female perspective. It’s kind of undermining, and makes Rosemary’s Baby much more interesting. How do I reconcile the fact that ‘this nuanced, empathetic story with a female lead was written for the screen, and directed by a man accused of raping a teenage girl?’ Not just accused – convicted and in exile in France to avoid jail! Polanski has also gone on the record to describe the #MeToo movement as ‘collective hysteria’ and ‘total hypocrisy,’ which I find incredibly hypocritical. He’s just not on the side of feminists, and yet Rosemary is a hugely feminist character. It’s fascinating!

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a young married couple, Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes), after they move into a new apartment in New York. They make friends with their weird neighbours Minnie and Roman Castevets (Gordon and Blackmer) who constantly impose on them – to Rosemary’s annoyance and Guy’s acceptance and then enjoyment. One day, after passing out at dinner, Rosemary has a nightmare where she is raped by a strange beast and wakes to find her body covered in scratch marks – apparently caused by her husband fucking her while she was unconscious. Gross. She soon discovers that she is pregnant but it is not a straightforward pregnancy. In the early stages, Rosemary is in constant pain, loses a terrifying amount of weight, and she knows something is wrong. She constantly asks for help but her concerns are dismissed and ignored. After her baby is born, Rosemary is told that he died. Hearing a baby’s cry, however, she goes next door and discovers that the Castevets, who she has discovered are satanists, have taken her baby and that her son is literally the spawn of the Devil. The movie ends with a suggestion that she is going to mother him anyway…

The easiest way to consider Rosemary’s Baby is to think of it as a product and portrait of its time. In the 1960s, second wave feminism was gaining ground and the term ‘second wave feminism’ itself was actually coined in a New York Times article in 1968, the year of Rosemary’s Baby. Whereas first wave feminism focused on basics like suffrage and voting rights, the second wave took the fight straight to the Patriarchy, highlighting inequalities in sexuality, reproductive rights and in the workplace, and it drew attention to abusive relationships and marital rape. The barriers and dangers facing women were now being talked about but they were not yet fully recognised. And it was these experiences that Polanski chose to make mainstream. More than that, he made them truly horrifying!

Just look at Guy – to steal words from Anne Bilston in the Guardian, he is the ‘most despicable villain’ and that’s even in comparison with the Devil! He makes a deal with the devil to allow his wife to be raped and his first child taken in exchange for a good acting career. What!? He is so wounded by his failures that he honestly considers his status and career to be important enough that this is a fair exchange!

But, again, it is not the supernatural that is terrifying about Guy. What scared me the most was how easily he was able to gaslight Rosemary and explain away all of her legitimate concerns, and how his explanations for the supernatural were acceptable and legal, even though they were clearly disgusting.

Guy drugs his wife and lets her unconscious body be taken by his devil worshiping neighbours so that the devil can rape her. But his explanation for all of the scratching on her body was simply that he’d fucked her when she was asleep – come on, he didn’t want to miss ‘baby night.’ He even tells her that it was ‘kinda fun in a necrophile sort of way.’ Grooossssss! And Rosemary didn’t have any response. This was supposed to be seen as a reasonable explanation and, from one perspective, it is. Marital rape wouldn’t be made illegal for nearly 30 years – in the US, it only became a crime in all 50 states in 1993 and in UK was only described in law in 2003, although there was legal precident from a case in 1991.

But Polanski uses this to take a feminist position. So what if Guy’s actions were legal, it feels wrong! Rosemary looks so vulnerable and marked that even Guy’s reasonable explanation feels horrible. Importantly, Polanski doesn’t keep any of the truth hidden. As the audience, we know what Guy has done, even if it’s not said out loud. We know how he has betrayed her and how he is manipulating her because we feel it in Rosemary’s reactions. We watch her question what she’s told and become bruised by the constant dismissal of her concerns. And it’s all part of the slow and insidious crescendo of doubt and mistrust that surrounds Rosemary until the film’s eventual conclusion feels ‘horrifyingly inevitable.’ It’s incredibly powerful.

And that’s just the most extreme example of how Rosemary is poorly treated by the people around her. From the moment that they move into their apartment, Rosemary seems to lose control of everything. To quote from Buzzfeed, ‘there’s no overt threat, just deftly scripted manipulation in which a woman’s sense of obligation to keep the peace is used to leverage her into doing something she doesn’t want to…It’s a movie that reflects a keen understanding of gender dynamics and how regularly women are undermined, disbelieved, and made to question their own realities.’ Guy corrects her opinions, overrules her plans, and generally belittles her choices. The Castevets impose themselves on her, acting like they’re being helpful but just overruling her choices. It’s really horrible to watch. Farrow’s elfin features and soft voice, especially after her famous pixie haircut, really emphasises how vulnerable she is and she becomes more alone as the movie progresses.

Rosemary, accepting a drink from Minnie

‘Don’t read books…and don’t listen to your friends,’ says Dr Sapirstein, the obstetrician recommended by the Castevets who is also part of the conspiracy against her. I know that pregnant women often complain about the unwanted and unsolicited advice that is thrown at them throughout their pregnancy, but there is something so unsettling about how Rosemary is kept isolated from all that, from everyone. She can’t choose her doctor, she is forced to take medicines and supplements that she doesn’t understand, and her complaints are constantly belittled. The scene at the party where she ends up sobbing to her friends because she cannot take the pain any more breaks my heart. First-time motherhood is a period that is plagued with anxieties – when you don’t know what to expect, normal pregnancy can feel strange and scary, and I know I needed my friends and family around me to reassure me that what I was feeling was OK. Rosemary doesn’t have that; she is alone. And worse, Rosemary is positioned as a ‘paranoid pregnant woman who imagines herself at the centre of a conspiracy,’ except, of course, that she’s right.

Image from Rosemary's Baby of Rosemary looking unwell

This is another moment when the fact that this movie was made in the mid- to late-1960s is important: ‘Farrow falls between a generation of expected-to-be-submissive housewives and a generation of expected-to-be-self-actualised feminists.’ But while the role of motherhood was changing irrevocably, the Patriarchy wasn’t keeping up and Rosemary’s Baby can be read as a desperate grasp at control. And a successful one because, you know, Polanski. Rosemary tries to maintain her autonomy, tries to make independent choices, and the men in her life reign her back in each time. The final straw, after she has escaped and sought help from a truly independent doctor in Dr Hill who still calls her husband, is honestly devastating. Dr Hill isn’t part of the satanist conspiracy and yet he still doesn’t believe her and defers to her husband. As described in Slant, ‘in one crushing gesture, Polanski implies that no man ever fully trusts women to know what’s best for themselves, and that they will always be dismissive of women’s judgement.’ For fucks sake! 

Alison Wilmore for Buzzfeed feels that ‘being able to effortlessly separate work from its creator is most often the privilege of those who relate to the artist more than to anyone that artist might have wronged,’ which makes it an entirely personal choice but a way of looking at the issue that chimes with me. Because I can see Polanski in the success of the Patriarchy in Rosemary’s Baby, regardless of how sympathetically he portrayed Rosemary. She isn’t saved, she isn’t ever believed. Polanski saw the dangers that women faced and the potential for horror in their everyday experience, and fully leaned into it without offering any hope. We can see Rosemary’s fate long before she does and we are unable to help. He successfully creates ‘a creeping sense of unease by making everything seem plausible,’ and this paints a terrifying view of how helpless women are within a patriarchal society. For me, the fact that this helplessness was created by a man with Polanski’s history is important and relevant. And, perhaps, not that surprising.

Image from Rosemary's Baby of Rosemary and Guy

Because despite saying that the easiest way to understand Rosemary’s Baby is to consider it as a product of a specific time, there is nothing dated about how Rosemary is treated. It is ‘a story about the expert gaslighting of a woman, and the techniques so embedded in our societal structure that she doesn’t notice it’s happening until it’s too late,’ and that is still terrifyingly relevant today. 

As Eric Henderson stated in Slant, ‘so long as there are men in power who are still fuzzy on the definition of rape, Rosemary’s Baby will endure as a cautionary tale.’ And, sadly, it is still very much needed today…

NEXT WEEK… VAMPIRES!!!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. Vida

    Brilliant commentary, Livvy! I read the book as a teenager, never saw the film – It’s amazing to look back and think of myself reading it as a schlocky horror, and not really picking up on the outrageous abusiveness of Rosemary’s position, I think because it seemed so par for the course.

Do you like this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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