The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Rosemary's Baby (1968/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #43 on my original list.
What it is • Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassevetes) move into the Bramford (really the infamous Dakota), a grand old New York building. Rosemary, who lacks a profession or the sharp personality of those around her, is initially overshadowed by more colorful characters like her eccentric neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). And yet the film is entirely centered around her point of view and as it progresses, our identification with her grows more and more intense. The central sequence in this development is one of the creepiest setpieces in horror history: Rosemary dreams/hallucinates/actually experiences a demonic ritual assault but wakes up the next day with only a foggy memory of what happened (therefore, the most important step of our identification with Rosemary occurs when we witness something that she herself is later unaware of). She begins to suspect her kooky neighbors and demure husband, a struggling actor, have wicked intentions for her unborn baby. The paranoia is palpable and the film is enveloped in a suffocating sense of suspense even though most viewers will have a pretty clear sense of what's going on (either going in or after the "dream"). That's because the tension results less from plot machinations than from Polanski's masterful sense of pace and atmosphere, and from the power of the central themes - a woman whose control over her life slips from her fingers, until she seems to be hemmed in from every corner - and Farrow's embodiment of these themes in her fragile form and quaking expression. Surprisingly, the film is often quite humorous, never more so than in its equal-parts terrifying/hilarious conclusion. Rosemary's Baby has a quintessentially fifties/sixties borderline-nihilist sick humor backed by a genuine sense of apocalyptic, barely-contained anxiety.
Why I like it •
I first saw the movie when I was feeling slightly ill, which made it all the more easy to empathize with Rosemary's claustrophobic terror and the ghoulish, feverish flavor of Polanski's tight, vivid mise en scene. I was surprised by how funny the film was too - I laughed out loud during many of the encounters with the Castevets, and the climactic moment when Minnie rushes to rub out a knife's scratch on the floor is exactly the type of subtle gesture that earns the film my affection as well as my admiration. Plus I am a sucker for anything involving shadowy conspiracies, age-old secret societies glimpsed behind a web of whispers and furtive glances. My affinity for expansive, sprawling films notwithstanding, I am drawn to the intensity and precision of Rosemary's Baby, its Hitchcockian sense of how to execute every scene to maximize our interest and exploit its potential. Quite simply, it's a superb feat of direction, taking a compelling presence to the next level by treating every detail with sophisticated creativity. There is a jarring, uncanny quality to what we see, as Polanski's polished, perfectly-captured images are combined in unusual ways (the shot of Rosemary's mattress floating on the sea being a perfect example). As with Chinatown, this allows the film to be simultaneously saturated by the graceful craft of Old Hollywood and the nervy energy of New Hollywood. The result is an American genre film glazed in the avant-garde. Picture a well-groomed, elegantly-dressed gentleman with a pointed tail just barely poking out of his trousers, his tasteful cologne not entirely able to conceal the smell of sulfur.
More from me • In the early days of this blog, I paired Rosemary's Baby with Paris Belongs to Us as part of a "Secret Societies" double feature. A clip (featuring, fair warning, a climactic moment) appears at 4:10 in "There's Something Happening Here", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video series. Clips also appear in my 7 Rooms guide montage.
How you can see it • Rosemary's Baby streams on Hulu and is available for blu-ray/DVD rental from Netflix. It is also available for digital rental/purchase from these sites.
What do you think? • Do you experience the film as pure horror, black comedy, or something in between? What distinguishes it from Polanski's earlier claustrophobic classics like Repulsion or Cul de Sac? On first viewing, what was your perception of Rosemary's situation - did you think she was crazy or did you believe in "all of them witches"?
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Yesterday: Out 1 (#44)
Tomorrow: The Mother and the Whore (#42)