Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.5: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 97 (A)

Roman Polanski was lucky enough to benefit from a period of new creative freedom for directors in Hollywood, American or otherwise, so long as they had a vision. Robert Evans of Paramount Pictures knew he wanted to be in business with Polanski and baited him with Downhill Racer, which played to Polanski’s love of skiing. But Evans really wanted Polanski to take on the William Castle-produced Rosemary’s Baby, a supernatural horror film based on Ira Levin’s best-selling novel. Polanski’s film follows the events and dialogue of Levin’s novel very closely, but there’s a reason the film has eclipsed its source material: in Polanski’s hands, Rosemary’s Baby goes from pulp thriller to a psychological horror film of great depth and dimension, and surely one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow in her breakout role) and her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) have just purchased an apartment at the Bramford building. There, the two befriend the strange but friendly elderly couple next door, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Good things start to happen to the Woodhouses all at once: Guy gets the leading role in a play, and soon Rosemary is pregnant. But strange coincidences occur alongside these joys: Guy gets the part after the previous lead goes blind, Rosemary becomes pale and gaunt, and a family friend goes into a coma. Soon, Rosemary comes to believe that Minnie and Roman are the heads of a coven of witches, and that they are after her baby.

Casting is all-important in Polanski’s films, and every role in Rosemary’s Baby is perfectly filled. Ralph Bellamy and Sidney Blackmer are strong as the warm but truly sinister older men in the film, but Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning role as Minnie is the best of the supporting turns in the film. Gordon’s natural daffiness and friendliness made her a joy in films like Harold and Maude, but Rosemary’s Baby provides her with her best showcase as a subverted version of the Ruth Gordon character, one hiding horrible truths beneath her benign old-lady exterior. Cassavetes is nearly as strong as Guy, Rosemary’s treacherous husband. Polanski originally wanted All-American golden-boy Robert Redford in the role, and he even considered Jack Nicholson for a time. Both of them likely would have done wonders with the role, but there’s something rather sly in casting Cassavetes, an independent filmmaker who often had to take mainstream acting jobs to finance his personal projects, as a man who sells his soul and his wife’s well-being for a break.

Polanski originally envisioned Rosemary as a full-bodied girl-next-door a la Tuesday Weld, but Farrow gives debatably the single finest performance of the 60s as Rosemary Woodhouse. Farrow always had one of the most expressive faces in the movie business (see her work with Woody Allen for more proof), and Polanski puts her character through an emotional rollercoaster here. What begins as a tale of a sweet young woman soon turns into a nerve-jangling experience as Farrow loses weight and grows increasingly gaunt. The physicality and pain of this performance is astonishing- Farrow has to go from a sickly woman shrinking under pressure to a very-pregnant woman frantically and often dazedly fighting for her child. Farrow’s performance in the final scene alone should have won her an Oscar, as Evans had predicted it would. She wasn’t even nominated.

Polanski’s tale of an innocent woman nearly destroyed by society takes its cues from Chaplin and Kafka, both of whom told (admittedly very different) tales of men and women railing against an unfair, almost nonsensical world. The idea that the world could have no real order- or at least no fair one- also borrows from Polanski’s absurdist theatre influences- Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter. As a horror craftsman, Polanski takes several cues from master visual storytellers like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, often using deep focus or perspective as a way to hide information from both the characters and the audience. A master of perspective, Polanski only lets the audience know as much as Rosemary knows at any given moment, whether she’s peering around corners to see if someone is hiding something from her or, as in a Bunuel-influenced dream-sequence, she’s being overwhelmed by her manipulated senses completely.

As with several Polanski films, the director makes great use of an isolated location as a way to represent a characters’ frame of mind. The Bramford building is a gorgeous gothic location, but it’s filled with history to send a chill down the spine. When Guy and Rosemary tour the building at the beginning of the film, there’s a gorgeous sunbaked quality to the cinematography, as if we were in the middle of a bubbly comedy, but it’s all just a bit too perfect. The gorgeous yet foreboding location represents both the idea that something could be wrong with something wonderful (pregnancy) and Rosemary’s own isolation and sense of being dominated- even when she’s out and about in New York, the building’s presence is felt.

Rosemary’s Baby marks Polanski’s fourth and final collaboration with Polish jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda as a composer, with Rosemary’s Baby being Komeda’s final score before his untimely death in a car accident. It’s a pity- with the exception of Jerry Goldsmith on Chinatown, Polanski would never find a better fit for his sensibility. Where Komeda’s playful jazz scores gave Knife in the Water and Cul-de-sac a playful feel, his foreboding, frightening, often nerve-jangling work here gives a sense of fatalism and melancholy to the proceedings. It’s appropriate that the film begins with a warped version of a lullaby- the film isn’t as overwhelmingly despairing as The Exorcist, but rather a darkly comic horror film that understands life and love as a grim joke. Life, sadly, would imitate art: Polanski’s own wife, Sharon Tate, would meet a cruel fate at the hands of the Manson family a year later. If it were a movie, Komeda’s deeply sad score would have been an all too appropriate soundtrack.

Sex and death inevitably go together in many horror films, but Polanski’s tone towards this is not out of judgment, but of sad inevitability. Rosemary and Guy are products of the swinging 60s- good kids just trying to get by and stake their own claim on life. The next step in their life, then, should be a moment of joy rather than one of betrayal. The rape of  a drugged, half-asleep Rosemary by a strange figure is a violation not only of her body, but of her trust, her soul, and her right to a happy life with a man of her choice and a child born of love. Soon, that violation manifests itself in the real world- friends die or fall gravely ill, and Rosemary looks like a walking corpse. The fear that something could go wrong during pregnancy- that new life could lead to death- is overwhelming in Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary’s fear that Bellamy’s Dr. Sapirstein, the Castevets, and Guy could harm her baby, or that her baby could die, is so perfectly realized that the film could serve as the end-all-be-all film about the fear of pregnancy (only Eraserhead and Alien could match it). Even when Rosemary is overcome with joy as her baby kicks in her stomach, we know something is wrong- Guy recoils. There is something wrong with this child.

The domination of Rosemary is one of Polanski’s most perfectly-realized power plays. This is largely because the dominating characters are no longer the openly contemptuous or leery figures of Knife in the Water and Repulsion, but rather the people Rosemary trusts the most. Roman and Minnie come off as the friendliest, warmest, most loveably eccentric old folks one could ever meet. Their betrayal of Rosemary’s trust, then, is particularly frightening (especially if, like me, you have a soft spot for adorable old people)- they feed Rosemary strange things, drug her,  and have complete control over who she sees. They’re not alone: Dr. Sapirstein is one in the same, an maternity doctor who doesn’t have the mother and child’s best interest in mind. Charles Grodin’s appearance as the more normal Dr. Hill seems as a solace for Rosemary…until he takes her ravings of cults and witches coming after her baby as delusions and turns her over to Sapirstein. Guy’s betrayal, of course, is the most devastating. One would like to think that their spouse, the person they’ve pledged eternal love to, can be trusted. But Guy dominates Rosemary with passive-aggressiveness, and he’s more than willing to sell his own soul and the soul of his wife’s first child in order to get a break.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Rosemary is insane. Polanski directs the film ambiguously enough that he leaves that door open- after all, c’mon, that’s crazy. Rosemary is being chased after by these doddering old folks? Rosemary’s marital problems come from a deal with the devil? Witches? Cults? Everyone is out to get her? It’s all awfully far-fetched. And that’s the point. Rosemary is going through a difficult time, and a handful of unfortunate coincidences- a young woman’s suicide, the death of a friend, the blindness of another actor- are enough to stoke an overactive imagination. Combine it with her poor health at the beginning of the pregnancy (“you look like a piece of chalk”), and one begins to doubt whether or not her paranoia is justified. The film takes on both the uneasy tone of the era and of the protagonist, and that subjective viewpoint is part of what makes it so frightening, so uneasy, and so difficult to grasp whether or not we can trust what we’re seeing.

Above all else, Rosemary’s Baby is a film about a world gone mad, whether it’s because of a crazed protagonist or a society of evil people. The film’s justly famous ending is a masterwork of drawn out tension, fever-dream intensity, and all-out madness. Rosemary evades capture and is finally driven to defend herself with a knife as she infiltrates the Castevets’ apartment, goes to rescue her baby…and sees something absolutely horrifying. It’s not much of a surprise today, considering that the film is talked about as “the film about a woman whose baby turns out to be the Antichrist”, but put yourself in the shoes of a viewer in 1968. We’ve spent the film worrying that this group of Satan-worshippers was going to sacrifice the baby for the devil, as many believed (ridiculously) was commonplace. And now we’re with Rosemary as she finds something inexplicable, something far worse than anyone could have imagined. Her child isn’t just a perversion of the miracle of birth- it’s the end of the world.

Farrow looks like her brain is about to explode in this scene, while Minnie and company assure her that she’s lucky to have been chosen and that everything will be alright for her. She can even be mother for him. And then we see something even more unsettling- she eases into her role as a mother. I can’t remember another ending to a film that has ever upset me to the same degree Rosemary’s Baby did when I was thirteen- it wasn’t just that evil won, but that the heroine could buckle and resign herself to this fate. What happens then? Does the child grow to conquer the world? Does Rosemary get ahold of herself? Is any of this real?

Here’s the answer: I don’t know. And that’s what separates both New Hollywood from Old Hollywood and the horror movement of the 60s and 70s from old horror traditions. Many have chosen Hitchcock’s Psycho as the advent of modern horror, but it’s more of a transitional film (albeit an excellent one) than a piece of the same movement. At the end of the film, we get our explanation as to why our villain does what he does. Rosemary’s Baby, the true birth of the movement alongside Night of the Living Dead, gives no such solace. Life’s most horrifying truths have no easy answers, and that’s what disturbs us the most. 

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