Classic Musings: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Time and time again, Rosemary's Baby always seems to worm its way into one's stomach and slither around persistently for its morbid two-hour-plus duration. Tapping into unsettling factors that hit close to home -- dubious neighbors, an emotionally-distant spouse, and the nature of knowing who to trust about the wayward biology of pregnancy -- Roman Polanski's first foray into Hollywood fare exploits the inherent unease of domesticity, its sinister essence intensifying the more it touches on homegrown fears. Pitch-black satire about starting a new life with a beloved person churns at its core, heavily blended with a critical outlook on show-business and clouding rational judgment with old wives' tales. That's all part of its sick brilliance, and it hits a fever pitch once the story plummets into the backwards maze of deduction, demon-worshipping witches, and psychological angst that's made it a proverbial name among the genre's greats and, thematically speaking, still remains quite relevant.

Wearing both writer and director hats, Polanski reverentially adapts Ira Levin's book of the same name, keeping the viewpoint perpetually locked onto the young woman whose name adorns the title. Following a swirling shot of rooftops in New York, it starts with housewife Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her mildly-successful actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), touring a striking apartment that's recently come available. It's an open, distinctive fixer-upper in a building with a storied history; people have died in unusual ways, at least one tied to witchcraft. Considering the building's proximity to the acting scene, however, the young couple, ready to settle down and have a child, decide to take it. They discover that there's more to the place they weren't aware of: the Castevets, the old, nosy, unusual couple next door, start creeping into their lives, getting worse once Rosemary and Guy plan to have their first baby. Then, there are those strange sounds coming from their neighbors' apartment ...

Polanski gives Rosemary's Baby a faintly avant-garde style reminiscent of other late-'60s independent cinema through William Fraker's lens, possessing notes of the internal drama and claustrophobia of Repulsion alongside occasional verite sequences that reminded me of, interestingly enough, John Cassavetes' provocative dramas. The apartment becomes a bit maze-like as Rosemary moves about the rooms and answers the door for her meddlesome neighbor, Minnie (a superb Academy Award-winning performance from Ruth Gordon); the seeds are planted for this setting to close in on her comfort zone, even though it's vibrant and spacious at first. Polanski isn't afraid of experimentation though, evidenced by dream sequences involving puffs of green smoke, yachting trips where people's faces change, and the deep, dark gaze of an ominous red figure. The eve of Rosemary's impregnation garners the lion's share of these incoherent, emblematic images coursing through her mind, captured in a whirlwind of naked bodies and dark shadows. Stillness is deceiving, and the darkness incredibly distressing.

Those earlier moments in Rosemary's Baby generate plenty of suspicion and curiosity, about fluke deaths, the foul odor of a good-luck charm, and eerie sounds of chanting, but only once Rosemary becomes pregnant does it embark on one of the most cunning crescendos of suspense captured on film. The point-of-view perpetually centers on the young mother-to-be, which deviously allows Polanski to reveal very little about what's going on outside her field of vision; conversations in smoky rooms outside her earshot and the composition of treatments prepared for Rosemary's well-being are conveniently, and craftily, left unbeknownst to her. We're the bystanders, the people yelling for her to look closer at what's going on around her as the mystery takes shape, yet she can't hear those calls. Warning sign after warning sign arouse her suspicion, yet her concern over her baby's health -- and the validity of those instructing her to follow certain instructions -- leads to a relentlessly unnerving psychological conflict between instinctual distrust and the persuasive words of those who "know better".

Mia Farrow undergoes a disarming transforming in Rosemary's Baby, arguably the most "horrific" thing about the film. The woman we see at the beginning of the film is a vibrant, hopeful girl with a sublime glow to her appearance, adorned with playful blonde hair and the dutiful disposition of a fulfilled housewife. As the film progresses further into darker territory, and the unsettling factors surrounding her pregnancy (and her husband's sudden burgeoning success) become consuming, her appearance descends into a disturbingly gaunt and desperate visage that's given weight by the mounting frailty in Farrow's performance. Rosemary represents a girl who's both reasonably intelligent and easily manipulated, a tough balance, but Farrow pale-faced, bone-protruding visage -- complete with a drastic change in hairstyle to a pixie cut, a byproduct of her Peyton Place character's emotional shift -- discovers desperation and closeted agony that fit snugly into that complex space. This hits a staggering, sickening peak the first time she feels her baby kick.

Rosemary's Baby slowly transforms into this mesmerizing exercise of horrific non-horror as her condition progresses, turning a critical and darkly-comic eye on the perplexing details of pregnancy and the self-absorbed nature of those in show-business. That fascination derives from the almost Hichcockian way Rosemary puts the pieces together and begins to fear for her and her baby's safety; her suspicion, driven by worrisome phone calls and digging through books, creates palpable speculation over what's physically happened to her and why her once-loving husband appears so distant and coarse. Polanski lets those details linger in sequences where Rosemary's mind wraps around the details, letting them hang in the air as our own awareness slowly merges with hers. All that gut-churning is done by showing next-to-nothing that's even remotely gruesome or resembling a typical jump-scare, or even concretely confirming or denying anything until it's absolutely necessary -- the pure anxiety over the presupposed plot surrounding Rosemary creating its own belly full of slugs.

At this point, after having experienced Rosemary's Baby several times over the years, it's a tricky endeavor to figure out exactly what details are observable suggestions to fresh eyes that hint at the upcoming conclusion, and which ones remain mysteries until after a second viewing. Polanski arranges these pieces of the puzzle in plain sight, snapping together into a baffling, ill-omened finale that leads all the horror elements to a fine point -- and then skillfully bleeds into a semi-ambiguous ending, leaving the director's mark with a disquieting expression of maternal instinct. The ominous power of that final scene is undeniable: it's the culmination of bizarre vitamin drinks and instructions not to read books that guides a confused, addled mother into a space where she can't figure out which direction is up or down, ensuring that nothing will ever be as that lively, doe-eyed girl at the beginning had planned. And the entire time, each and every time Rosemary's Baby is watched, that persistent heavy feeling Polanski so indelibly concocts will make those watching want to ceaselessly shake her and warn her otherwise.

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