19 March 2007

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Written & Directed by: Roman Polanski

Grade: A

Rosemary’s Baby, I’ll assume everyone already knows, is about witches in New York in the late ‘60s (essentially, the '70s). But rather than set the film in some godforsaken place like Studio 54 (too full of vampires?), the clever filmmakers place it in a bastion of Old Money, the Dakota Building, and rather than warty green monsters of the Wizard of Oz variety, all of the witches in the film are rather benign-looking septuagenarians.

The Woodhouses, Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow), land a beautiful apartment in the Bramford, the movie’s alias for the aforementioned Dakota; their neighbors in the contiguous apartment, the Castavets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon), seem like a perfectly nice old couple, if a little weird and over-bearing. Starting out, as Robert Evans has observed, “like a Doris Day movie,” the picture gets progressively stranger: a closet, with only a vacuum cleaner and some towels, is senselessly and ominously blocked by a secretary; strange chanting noises bleed through the walls; Guy’s central competition for a prominent theatrical role suddenly goes blind; and there’s lots foreshadowy talk of Devil worship, spirit raising and dead infants. (All that’s missing is an old newspaper turning up that indicates the Bramford is built on an old Indian burial ground.) It all culminates in the Act One finale dream sequence that blatantly recalls The Manchurian Candidate in its spatial discontinuity and freeform associations; but while in The Manchurian Candidate the country is figuratively raped by what we’d now call neocons, in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is literally raped by the Devil himself.

She gets pregnant, but loses weight and becomes increasingly sickly, sallow and pale, to the degree that everyone she sees makes a note of it: "You don't look so well." No kidding! And not only that, she’s in horrible pain and has taken up strange eating habits she doesn’t even notice, like eating raw chunks of meat and chicken gizzards. But the doctor says everything’s normal. And, incidentally, Guy’s career is really taking off.

Rosemary’s Baby is really a joy to watch for its crisp compositions and Fassbinderian color textures, not to mention the uniformly grand performances. Indie icon Cassavetes is perfect as a prick actor, and Farrow, a generally underrated actress (probably because she spent so many years as Woody Allen’s sidekick), is as always marvelous. Also, since so many of his characters are old timers, Polanski had the opportunity to cast many big Old Hollywood actors, with familiar names and faces like Ralph Bellamy and Elisha Cook (finally old enough to drop the “Jr.”) rounding out the margins with the sort of masterful performances that take a lifetime of experience to generate.

One could make the argument, albeit a bit thin, that Rosemary’s Baby is a feminist critique of how all institutions—marriage, motherhood, medicine, etc.—set out to destroy women, but I think the film functions better a bit more broadly. It’s a daylight horror film, without any special effects, set primarily within comfortable spaces like the bedroom and the doctor’s office, during waking hours, with familiar people like spouses, neighbors, and obstetricians, and yet all of these people and places become threat posers to the put-upon Rosemary. It’s the seemingly benign institutions of America that are set to destroy all of us; also the film attacks Broadway/Hollywood, where an actor needs to (here literally) sell his soul for a break, as well as the “older generation” that, in its gaudy clothing and garish make-up, uses and abuses the youth for its own selfish gains.

While waiting in a doctor’s office, Rosemary picks up a Time magazine, the headline of which reads, “Is God Dead?” Well, apparently these New Yorkers are selfish enough to think so, mad enough to bring the son of Satan into the world; but the bookending aerial shots seem to suggest a judgemental God watching over the whole proceedings. A short decade later, New York was in financial ruin with Gerry Ford telling it to drop dead. Looks like the devil-worshipping Gothamites got their divine comeuppance.

1 comment:

james flames said...

well done - good review, well written.
that casavettes DID look like a prick all the time.