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Rosemary's Baby - Roman Polański

John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow in the movie "Rosemary's Baby" by Roman Polański
John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow in the movie "Rosemary's Baby" by Roman Polański

Thanks to his film Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polański became the precursor to a new genre in horror. Polanski’s picture began the series of satanic horror blockbusters, inspiring the creators of such movies as The Omen, The Exorcist and Damien. However, Rosemary’s Baby is different from its alleged successors in the sense that it employs ascetic means of expression and avoids “demonic effects” - and straightforward awfulness. The movie’s horror is neither abrupt nor destructive, slipping into everyday reality as if through a narrow crack. There is no certainty that dangerous supernatural phenomena are real, and not just imagined.

After finishing his comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers in Europe in 1967, Polanski accepted a proposal from producer Robert Evans of Paramount Pictures, and worked with screenwriter Gérard Brach to adapted Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby. It was the first movie the filmmaker made in Hollywood. (The picture finally made it to cinemas in the director’s native Poland in 1984, and the Polish edition of the novel was published 2 years later.)

Polanski wanted to undermine the book’s unequivocal point of view. His version was to leave room for interpretation, with the supernatural phenomena as possibly products of the main character’s imagination. Such an understanding of the story was, however, only suggested by the director. Ambiguousness is one of the characteristic qualities of Polański’s movie. Through it, the production gains a whole level of depth.

Mariola Jankun wrote in the magazine Kino (no. 4/1985) that:

The unreal sphere reveals itself in the consciousness in the form of confusion as to whether black magic is effective or useless. The question whether Satan is present or absent also arises. Fantastic elements, which are defined in such a way, are an extremely dangerous source of destruction - they split Rosemary’s consciousness. The main character has to perceive reality either as a cluster of delusions or as a satanic nightmare. […] The process of understanding the film is similar. The strangeness of the events gives them double meanings and the typical notions of reality and fiction are of no use.

It’s the middle of the swinging 1960s. A young couple is at the threshold of married life. Beautiful Rosemary and handsome Guy Woodhouse find a special offer and rent a spacious New York apartment near Central Park, in an 19th-century building: the Bramford. The couple’s social status rises when they move into their new home, and it seems that they are at the beginning of a good streak. Rosemary, delicate and nice, wants to have a baby. She decorates, creating a cozy home. Guy is an actor in commercials but his ambitions are greater – he wants to evolve, he desires artistic success.

The young couple buy furniture - but the first signs appear that all is not what it seems. A friend, writer named Hutch, comes to visit, and knows the history of the old building. Guy and Rosemary’s flat was once the home of the Trench sisters, who used to cook children. Another Bramford resident, Adrian Marcato, claimed to be a descendant of Satan.

Rosemary meets the neighbours: the young Terry Gionoffrio and the elderly couple Minnie and Roman Castevet. Minnie gives Rosemary a present – a necklace with a root that is supposed to bring good luck. The neighbours’ kindness becomes obnoxious, with Minnie treating Rosemary to odd-tasting dishes. Rosemary ignores her own uneasiness and endures the older woman’s nosiness. The young wife doesn’t notice when a closet seems to have been slightly moved, and tries not to pay attention to strange noises coming from behind one wall.

Rosemary is by no means self-reliant, she depends on her husband and finds justifications for their quarrels. Guy, on the other hand, is false and unnatural, he keeps his wife at a distance and is preoccupied with his career. The situation becomes even more tense when the neighbour Terry commits suicide and their friend Hutch will mysteriously become ill and die.

Thanks to an awful coincidence, Guy gets the sought-after main role in a play – the actor chosen for the role suddenly goes blind. Rosemary rejoices with him. It is a breakthrough moment in the movie. Guy gets the role - he probably signs a devilish contract but we don’t learn about that agreement straightaway. Rosemary should feel that her husband’s love has weakened - Guy might not even love her anymore. But she is, it seems, not only naïve but afraid of admitting that her life isn’t perfect. She doesn’t want to see that her husband’s character is changing for the worse. Thus some blame for events to come also falls on her - she isn’t solely a victim.

Thanks to Polański’s specific directing aesthetic, the audience accompanies her, participating in events alongside her. However the film is made in such a manner that we may understand more of the situation than Rosemary does.

In the magazine Film na Świecie (no. 8-8/1980), Polański said that:

Intimacy isn’t directly linked to the viewpoint. Intimacy is directly linked to the place in which the camera stands and to the distance from the filmed object. If we were to film Rosemary entering a bedroom and we would use a camera standing in the far side of the room to do this, there would be nothing intimate about the footage. However if we place the camera behind her and we follow her into the bedroom, the scene will turn intimate.

Rosemary suppresses doubts, wanting to believe everything is alright. After Minnie’s meals, however, she feels strange, then one night she has an unpleasant, erotic dream - or maybe experiences a narcotic hallucination, sleeping with an unreal monster, with someone who isn’t entirely human. Soon she discovers she’s pregnant, and her neighbours become even more concerned about her. Guy supports all of their actions. Rosemary changes her doctor at the neighbours’ recommendation. She drinks a peculiar cocktail made by Minnie even though it causes aches. Hutch had grown concerned about Rosemary’s unhealthy appearance and wanted to meet, but illness prevents this from happening and before long, the writer is dead. Rosemary receives a parcel sent by Hutch before his death. The package contains a book about black magic - but it is too late to alter the outcome.

Rosemary gives birth to a son, but the child is taken away right after the delivery. She is informed that her child has died - yet she can hear it crying in the neighbours’ apartment. Now she realizes that, with Guy’s consent, their satanic cult has used her and that she is the mother of the anti-Christ. He must be hideous as members of the sect claim that he resembles its father (the baby isn’t shown in the movie). Guided by instinct, Rosemary accepts the child without hesitation. By doing so she also approves everything her son might do in the future. This scene is accompanied by Rosemary’s Lullaby, by Krzysztof Komeda, and its theme has become one symbol of Polański’s movie.

Jan Olszewski wrote in the magazine Kino (no. 44/1984) about what follows:

In the last scene of the movie Rosemary has to make a difficult choice: she has to either abandon her child or her moral principles. Everything suggests that she will choose the baby over her morals. This is where we might return to the question asked in the beginning: how are we to define Rosemary’s Baby? The answer is: it is definitely an entertaining movie; it is a product of the typically American fascination with the occult. It is also a film that addresses issues linked to the great tradition of Faust.

After the film was released, a campaign advertised both the film and Levin’s novel. Rumors appeared that the founder of Satan’s church, Anton Szandor LaVey, was a consultant on the set and played the anti-Christ in the scene showing Rosemary’s nightmare - a rumor which probably had nothing to do with reality. Rosemary’s Baby was the movie the director completed before the gruesome killings of his wife, Sharon Tate, and friends, by Charles Manson’s cult. After the murders, rumors about the advertising campaign were used against Polański and against his film. Which have not prevented it from gaining cinematic renown – and its own cult admirers.

  • Rosemary's Baby, USA 1968. Directed by: Roman Polański; screenplay by: Roman Polański, Gérard Brach; cinematography by: William A. Fraker; music by: Krzysztof Komeda; Cast: Mia Farrow (Rosemary Woodhouse), John Cassavetes (Guy Woodhouse), Ruth Gordon (Minnie Castevet). Colour film. Running time: 136 min.


  • 1970 - Award of the French Society of Film Critics in the category best foreign film.

Autor: Ewa Nawój, December 2010

Tags: roman polańskirosemary's baby

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