Rosemary’s Baby: not just any date-rape

Paul’s History of Cinema Festival last night brought us to mid-1968 with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, written by Polanski from the novel by Ira Levin. While watching Polanski’s sure-footed interpretation of the story I had a new feeling: after 3 years of viewing movies chronologically from 1916 on, I finally felt I was watching a modern or contemporary film. In almost every detail of its production, from the understated realism of the characterizations to the unabashed naturalness of the young couple’s married life to the excellent cinematography and technical credits, the movie could have been made anytime in the last few years and shows virtually no trace of being 43 years old. It confirmed my respect for Polanksi as one of the best filmmakers of all time.

(Warning: this post contains serious spoilers, so read no further unless you’ve already seen the movie or read the book.)

The idea for the story is excellent. A pair of newlyweds, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) moves into a spacious Manhattan apartment left vacant by the death of its previous tenant, an 89-year-old woman. The old building has a history of tragic and horrible events such as suicides and even, it’s alleged, cannibalism. Various remodelings of the building have left the young couple’s apartment with only paper-thin walls separating them from their neighbors, the 70-something Castevets, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, who are friendly, urbane, interesting, and seemingly enchanted with the young couple. They start to socialize with each other a lot.

Rosemary, who’s eager to start a family with Guy, starts to find Mamie and Roman Castevet too intrusive, but Guy is delighted with them and also excited that his acting career is starting to take off. There are some disturbing turns. For one thing, a young woman who befriends Rosemary, and who has been living with the Castevets as a a kind of protegee, is found dead, having jumped from their apartment window while the Castevets were out. Another is that Guy gets an important role when the first pick for that role suddenly and inexplicably goes blind.

One night, Rosemary, eating a chocolate mousse prepared by Mamie, is drugged into a stupor, and in a sequence of dreams or nightmares she is bound naked on a table while a naked coven—led by Roman and Mamie Castevet, and joined by Guy—looks on. And there she is taken and impregnated by the Devil.

The rest of the story has Rosemary piecing together what’s going on, and gradually coming to realize that she is dealing with witches. When she reaches out for help to outsiders, they disappear or die. But she continues to believe that the child she carries was engendered by Guy, until the climax of the story, when Roman Castevet, now frank about his leadership of the coven, advises her that the child is Satan’s. When Roman urges her to mother her child, Rosemary approaches the black-draped cradle and starts to look with maternal love on the devil-spawn that we, the audience, never actually see.

I’d seen the movie before, but this time I was excited by the dark parallel to the gospel story of the birth of Jesus. Roman tells Rosemary outright that Satan has chosen her to beget his only-born son, making her an anti-Mary. But unlike the impregnation of Mary, which occurred via her ear, Rosemary’s was achieved carnally, essentially by date-rape. Her child, presumably, will be the Antichrist (born on 28 June 1966, according to the movie), which in turn means that the Apocalypse is nigh.

But these topics are not addressed directly in the movie, and indeed although the storytelling was in the main very good (I watched alertly and with interest all the way through its 136 minutes), I felt that the story was a bit underpowered and that it did not really end satisfactorily. When Rosemary finally realizes fully what has happened, she grabs a carving knife and crashes the meeting of the coven around the black cradle. Is she going to slash somebody (as Catherine Deneuve did in the last Polanski film we watched, Repulsion)? No. When she finds out who the real father is, she drops the knife. And Roman is successful in awakening her maternal concern for the child, even though he is a monster. Her husband is already on board, having sold his soul for career success.

The final shot of the film is of Rosemary’s face looking down on her child, her expression softening, accepting. She’s not going to have a normal life or a normal family, but she does have a child, and maybe there is indeed something seductive about being such a VIP mother, even if you’re a Catholic girl from Omaha. If she gets with the program, she will have the forces of darkness working with her, at least for now. For no doubt she will be killed, discarded, or eaten once her usefulness is over.

Rosemary has done her best to escape the clutches of the coven, but they’ve corrupted or destroyed all her allies. A pregnant woman, she’s too small and too weak to battle such cosmic forces arrayed against her. Still, a different heroine might have gone down fighting, and not let herself be co-opted, whatever the price. I was hoping she was going to stab the child, this monster gotten on her by force and by fraud, this creature that had been draining her life and causing her pain throughout her pregnancy. Then she would have had to face the revenge of the coven, of the Devil himself—what would have happened then? Would God have intervened? If not, why not? Or is the prophecy of Antichrist too potent to allow of such improvisation now? I think the story should have answered these questions.

Instead we have a story of corruption. A good and decent young woman, abused and exploited by evil people, including those she loves and trusts, decides that if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. And no doubt that is what the great majority of us would in fact do; it may also be the very reason that the Devil lured Rosemary to his operatives in that old coven-roost in Manhattan. But in order to test the values at play in the story, you need to have a character who holds her value very dear, who won’t compromise it.

This movie, I think, is in the ancestral tree of the 1984 movie The Terminator, in which an ordinary young woman (Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton), finding herself the target of a terrifying cosmic girl-hunt conducted by superhuman adversaries, digs down and finds heroism within her. True, her enemies are not trying to corrupt her, only kill her, but for the great majority, the fight goes out of us when we see that the odds are overwhelmingly against us. We surrender; it’s too hard.

But in Rosemary’s Baby I got the feeling that Rosemary had caved in and let down team Humanity. As her husband Guy had been bought with career success, so she had been bought with the mother-infant bond. Has she been seduced by a feeling of specialness, of being a VIP? Has she been won over after all by the charisma of Satan? Those elements might be in there, but my feeling at the end was that these things were not the important part; the important part was simply mother-love, conquering Rosemary’s feelings of outrage, injustice, and horror. If she had been a regular rape victim who had come to love the resulting offspring, that would be a sign of her nobility, because the child himself would be innocent. But you can’t say that here. Somehow this Devil’s spawn is in on the scheme, as much a part of the conspiracy, as guilty, as the father and his minions. He’s availed himself of the services of Rosemary’s womb, and now he needs more—and she’s willing to provide it.

Satan here has successfully corrupted the maternal instinct. For is not goodness exactly the ability to say no to instincts when they will lead to harm? And is not being a slave of instinct the mark of brutes—the creatures from which we distinguish ourselves as human beings? So when humans use the “instinct” excuse, they are affirming their brutality.

That would mean that a devil-worshipper is an ex-human, a human who has voluntarily given himself over to going with instinct, choosing this as his ultimate value instead of goodness.

At the end of this story, Rosemary, fighting the good fight up to the end, caves in. I can’t help but wonder what a different, more heroic woman might have done in her place. That’s the story I really want to see—and I’d be all the more delighted if it were Roman Polanski telling it.

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