Saturday, 13 September 2014

1,001 Films: "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

Would it be facile to suggest it was Roman Polanski's experiences during the Holocaust that left him so adept at evoking horror in poky rooms and other hidey-holes? Slotting in between 1965's Repulsion (London) and 1976's The Tenant (Paris), the New York-set chiller Rosemary's Baby proved the centrepiece of a loose globetrotting triptych that identified something terrifying in the gap between interior and exterior spaces: these are films that have cause to ask "What's going on inside me? What's really in my closet?" Some have seen cause to infer Polanski's adaptation of the Ira Levin novel also wonders what might have been going on inside America in the late 1960s, a country on the verge of striking its own deal with the Devil, but it can just as easily be approached as a disquisition on the Manhattan postcode lottery, a movie that wonders what would happen if the pied-à-terre you bought to raise your children in turned out to be managed by a collective of ageing Satanists. (And we've all had landlords like that.)

The Upper West Side apartment building that upwardly mobile Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes move into does indeed house a rich history of the dark arts: one minute it's all chit-chat over cheesecake with the neighbours, the next he's winning theatre roles previously believed lost, and she's got butterflies - or something far, far worse - in her tummy. Though Polanski stages some trippy Satanic rites, the film's most powerful effects stem from an inversion of the usual external factors associated with pregnancy. Rather than blossoming, Farrow's Rosemary withers; rather than bringing colour to her cheeks, her baby appears to be draining her of all life, making a death mask of some already delicate features. The backdrop, certainly, is a realistic New York bohemia - this is gestation period as off-Broadway horror show - yet there lurks on the fringes the grotesquerie Polanski was always fond of, and saw far too much of, and which was to ripen fully in The Tenant; it may even be objectionable that, while her hubby has a career of which to speak, Rosemary should be defined more or less entirely by her ovaries and a Vidal Sassoon haircut. Feminism lay around the corner.

Just as the no less bedroom-bound The Exorcist would come to trade on Linda Blair's guilelessness, Polanski here preys on Farrow's pliability: for the sake of narrative ambiguity, he needs us to believe Rosemary is capable of wittering hysteria, and that, in the absence of anything else for her to do, she might conceivably be filled up with her own irrationality. Still, the film holds up because it plunges us into the same situations facing any young couple trying to make the right move and pick the best time to settle down, or wondering what kind of a world they're bringing their offspring into. If we accept the (debatable) line that Lars von Trier's Antichrist was an attempt by a childless director to put the wind up all those who have gone forth and multiplied, then Rosemary's Baby now looks like the "respectable" studio version, adapted from a bestseller, and comparatively restrained in what it shows up until a finale that's both weirdly funny and tender in the way it underscores the possessive apostrophe of the title. I fear a remake must be coming down the tubes sooner or later, doubtless dripping in amniotic fluids, and far less ambiguous about its kicking and screaming.

Rosemary's Baby is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

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