Polanski week has seen me write at length about the cinematic technique, intellectual pedigree and philosophical themes of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy but for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I would like to take a different approach. Arguably one of Polanski’s best known films, Rosemary’s Baby is wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and so tightly written and shot that not a single frame feels out of place or fails to pull its weight. From the famously ‘Doris Day’ soap operatic opening scenes to the macabre ending, it is close to being a flawless work of cinematic genius. However, where The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion (1965) are quite clearly about the descent into madness via sexual repression, Rosemary’s Baby deals in the more fantastical currency of witches, Satanism and the birth of the anti-Christ. The use of such fantastical imagery invites us to wonder what the film is really about. Rosemary is clearly not mad, nor is she sexually frustrated.
Rosemary’s Baby is a snapshot of social power dynamics in 1970s New York. It is a film not only about the treatment of women at the hands of a powerful Patriarchy, it is also an account of price exacted from the young by the elderly in return for the transferal of power to members of a new generation. Despite being a film about unearthly creatures, Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately a profoundly temporal film about man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman).
The first thing one notices about Rosemary’s Baby is the use of colour. When we encounter Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) they are clad respectively in yellow and blue. However, this use of colour is not limited to the characters as, after a decoration montage, the new apartment becomes a space draped in many different shades of yellow. In fact, so distinctive and consistent is this use of colour that at times Rosemary’s Baby looks like a film from an earlier era; it shares the same bold and almost incandescent colours as the Technicolor classics of the 1930s such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Indeed, so consistent is Polanski’s use of blue and yellow that when we first encounter the colour red its harshness is shocking, even more shocking than the fact that this red comes from the blood of an apparent suicide victim.
Similarly, when the Woodhouses’ neighbours, the Satanic Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) appear their outfits immediately clash with the tasteful blues and yellows of the Woodhouses. These older people clearly come from a different world.
As the film goes on, the colour red pops up again and again, each time signifying the trace of black magic. For example, in the roses that Guy gives Rosemary after he suspiciously lands a leading role, in the outfit Rosemary wears before the ritual, in the blood daubed on her naked body prior to having sex with the devil and in her dress when, months into the pregnancy, she looks so pale and emaciated that her female friends lock Guy out of the kitchen.
It is only really in the film’s powerful final scene where Rosemary and Guy finally ditch their respective colour schemes. Rosemary wears the blue of the Virgin Mary while Guy wears grey, his signature blue present only in a couple of bands of his tie. This shedding of their youthful colours signifies the elevation of Guy and Rosemary from the primary colours of youth to the muted tones of adult-hood. Idealism gives way to compromise. It is only the most fanatical of the old ones who still maintain their distinctive colours. Their youthful idealism never left them because it was never there, or if it was then it was in a perverted and twisted form.
If the final scene of Rosemary’s Baby marks the transition of Rosemary from powerless young woman to powerful mother then the rest of the film is a reminder of how little power Rosemary really has. From the beginning of the film it is clear that Guy makes all the decisions and that it is Rosemary’s job to support him unquestioningly. When Rosemary begs Guy to allow them to move into the new apartment, he acts as though it is an imposition upon him personally. As though he is doing her a favour. When he fails to get a part he does not even thank Rosemary when she brings him food and drink without asking and offers him supportive words. However, nowhere is Rosemary’s lack of power clearer than in the aftermath of the ritual when she discovers herself to be covered in scratches. “Don’t yell, I already filed them down!” Guy jokes suggesting it is quite normal for him to rape his wife while she is passed out.
Later passages in the film also show how little power Rosemary has as a woman in a Patriarchal society. Having worked out the real identity of the Castevets, Rosemary flies to a different doctor and tells of the plan and how not only her husband but also her doctor are in collusion with these Satanists. The doctor assures her that all will be well and then promptly summons Rosemary’s husband and doctor to come and pick her up. After all, she is just a hysterical woman. Rosemary’s sense of powerlessness in the face of male plans is enough to suggest that the film is furthering a feminist agenda but in this case one would need to consider the role played by the female members of the coven in controlling Rosemary as well as the fact that the person at the top of the hierarchy is not a male but a fallen angel who here takes a male form but who might, in a different film take a completely different one…
Instead, I think it is more rewarding to look at Rosemary’s Baby as a meditation on the nature of social power in the 1970s (a theme that Polanski would also touch upon in The Tenant). As young people, Guy and Rosemary have no power and, relative to Guy, Rosemary has even less power. She does not even have power over her own sexual and reproductive drives. Indeed, we can see in Guy’s use of Rosemary’s body to further his own career not only the belief that there is no such thing as marital rape but also the old anti-abortionist argument that the desires of the father should be taken into account despite the fact that a) a man can always bully a woman into having or getting rid of a child against her wishes and b) it is not the man who has to carry the child to term and then assume the cultural expectations of being the primary carer. However, Guy does not merely use Rosemary for his own ends, he effectively trades her to older and more powerful people in return for them putting their power to use on his behalf.
The final scene of Rosemary’s Baby shows Rosemary negotiating with Roman Castevets. the scene opens with Roman ranting and praising both Satan and Adrian and proclaiming that “the year is One!” but after this show of power he comes over to Rosemary and pleads with her to raise the child as her own. The women of the coven are too old and it is “not right”. This displays one of the realities of any society in which the old hold more power than the young.
The old are mortal and while they can stockpile power in their own hands, they know that eventually they must die and so it is quite common for older people to think of their legacy in the form of impact upon the future and the generations that will come after them. We can see the exercise of this kind of power in great philanthropic works, vast monuments and even in the rearing of children. This is where the young are able to barter for more power as ultimately they have little to offer older people other than the fact that they are more dynamic and will most like out-live these older people. Guy uses his youth and his access to Rosemary to broker a deal with the Satanists and in the film’s final scene, Rosemary does the same. She could turn her back on her child or she could raise it in the knowledge that it will become hugely powerful. For all her outrage at being manipulated, raped and abused, Rosemary decides that the deal offered to her by Roman is maybe not that bad after all.
This is the same deal that is offered all humans at one point or another in their lives. They can be independent or they can have access to the money and power accumulated by previous generations. This power dynamic is endemic to the human condition, it is built into what it means to be live in a human society and it even underpins religious Faith; agree to follow God’s rules and he will give you bliss. Follow Satan’s commands and he will give you temporal power. So ancient and universal is this need for compromise that it might as well be magical or theological and so in exploring it Polanski’s use of religious imagery seems perfect. Had the virgin birth really taken place then one can imagine Mary being in a very similar position to Rosemary; yes you were raped, but he is your child and he will one day be immeasurably powerful… are you sure you want to live out the rest of your days as a powerless peasant? Rosemary’s Baby is about making a deal with the devil in the most generic sense of the phrase, it is about the compromises we make and the values we ignore in order to make our ways in the world.