“There’s a closet here…and then there’s a closet there,” Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) lisps to a giggling Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in one of only instances of romantic bliss in Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), parroting the expressive apartment manager who shows them their new apartment in the film’s first scene. Eager to display another closet, the manager is disconcerted to encounter a massive armoire against a hallway wall.
This wall, as it turns out, is a closet, and the closet, it is ultimately revealed, is in fact a foyer into the meeting place of a satanic coven—led by next door neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet—conspiring to bring about the reign of Satan by impregnating Rosemary with his son. Where the closet traditionally signifies repression, a site of hidden truths, this shifting and unstable interior geography and the playfulness of Guy’s reference to it are suggestive of the manner in which ROSEMARY’S BABY at times appears an epistemological film, while ultimately eliding the themes and mechanics of the genre. That is, while the film is structured toward a final revelation that confirms Rosemary’s suspicions, it never traffics in the doubt-driven suspense of recent yawns like SHUTTER ISLAND and INCEPTION. As Roger Ebert wrote in his 1968 review, “Polanski gives the audience a great deal of information early in the story, and by the time the movie’s halfway over we’re pretty sure what’s going on in that apartment next door.” More accurately, the film never bothers to frame Rosemary’s assertions in any uncertain light, all the while maintaining a condemnatory distance from Cassavetes’ perfectly smug and slimy Guy.
By quickly legitimating Rosemary’s terror, the film generates a sort of perverse dramatic irony: the audience is assured of the truth of Rosemary’s fears, while receiving no additional evidence beyond what Rosemary has seen. Unmired by the mise en abyme of reality testing, Polanski’s film explores a more terrifying conjunction of knowledge and power. We watch as Rosemary, brilliantly embodied by a disturbingly gaunt Mia Farrow, is coerced and manipulated by her husband, neighbors, and doctor into enduring exceptional physical agony while almost entirely isolated from any community of friends. The reality of Rosemary’s pain is not called into question and the skepticism professed by her husband and her doctor is exposed as mere self-interest. Knowledge is not, for Rosemary, a source of power or agency; the inexorability of power’s operation here renders Rosemary’s volition null. It can be truly painful to watch (warning: there is a rape scene in the film as part of an oneiric montage).
While reproductive rights are central to ROSEMARY’S BABY, it is not a period piece. That being said, it derives much charm from its periodicity. It is peppered, almost comically so, with a glut of contemporary concerns: commercialism, drug abuse, mistrust of organized religion. They drink Vodka Blushes, prepare coffee using a Chemex and decry packaged pills in favor of “fresher” herbal remedies. In one of the more hilarious instances of a misfired imitation of 1960’s morality, the Castevets’ originally-intended surrogate tells Rosemary, “They picked me up off the sidewalk…I was starving and on dope and doing a lot of other things,” to which Rosemary responds, “It’s nice to know there are people like that, when you hear so much about apathy and people who are afraid of getting involved.” Plus, Guy and Rosemary wear some pretty incredible outfits—and Rosemary’s hair? “It’s Vidal Sassoon.”
Also to be relished is the Woodhouse’s exceptionally well-appointed apartment, in which the vast majority of the film transpires. Nevertheless, enthusiasts of the distinctively New York cinema of the late ‘60s and ‘70s won’t be entirely disappointed. The film begins with an exceptional birds-eye panorama of the Upper West Side, closing in on the Dakota, the massive Victorian building chosen to represent the Bramford, where the film takes place (Yoko Ono lives there in real life!). There is also a subsequent trip to Park Ave. and the Time-Life Building. The history of Manhattan real estate proves to be significant to the plot. A genealogy of the Bramford begins the film:
“Originally the smallest apartment was a nine – they’ve been broken up into fours, fives, and sixes. Seven E is a four that was originally the back part of a ten. It has the original bedroom for its living room, another bedroom for its bedroom, and two servants rooms thrown together for its dining room or second bedroom.”
It is telling about how far we’ve come that a mostly unemployed actor like Guy Woodhouse can afford this massive, lavish space (or perhaps here we must suspend our disbelief).
ROSEMARY’S BABY isn’t quite a horror film, but it definitely inspired a good deal of interest in satanism and cults among 1970’s filmmakers. In any case, it’s perfectly timed for Halloween. It might not make you shriek, but it will definitely leave you thoroughly unnerved.
Monday, October 28, 7:00 PM
Coolidge Corner Theatre (290 Harvard Street, Brookline MA 02446)
General Admission $9.25