Sunday, 24 July 2016

Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" – Little Perisher

Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby offers a suggestion about how an indifferent actor can get a chance to make it big on stage and in Hollywood.  It’s as plausible an explanation as any I’ve heard to explain the popularity of certain big name actors in real-life Hollywood.  (Clooney, I’m looking at you.)


Just kidding, George.  Who could resist your unique mix of easy charm, unforced slapstick and A-list versatility?  Absolutely no need to resort to pimping out a baby to devil worshippers to explain Clooney’s success, but for Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), the actor husband of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in the film, a little Satanic assistance with his career proves to be irresistible.

A difference between this film and that other classic of childhood demonic possession, The Exorcist, is that Polanski chooses not to show the baby at all and plays throughout the film with the idea that the supernatural conspiracy could be a delusion of Rosemary’s, caused by her pregnancy.  It’s a classy approach and it adds to the spookiness of the film as well as sharing Rosemary’s paranoia with the audience, since there is a sense that we can trust no body, just as Rosemary feels.

However, it is a weakness of the execution that we are never in any serious doubt that the Satanic plot is real.  There are too many telling details from Rosemary’s point of view – from the fact she notices that pictures have been taken down when she visits the weird old neighbours’ apartment (the Castevets, played nicely by Ruth Gordon (as Minnie) and Sidney Blackmore (as Roman)), to the pierced ears of Roman Castevet, to the chalky undertaste in the ‘chocolate mouse’ that she eats before her impregnation etc etc. 

The only time doubt is cast on her view of the world is when she demands that her husband shows her his shoulders, thinking he has been marked by the coven.  It turns out that his shoulders are unmarked (although he doesn’t offer to show her the rest of his body).  Perhaps a few more of these kinds of moments would have strengthened the ‘is she / isn’t she?’ angle.

Review continues below...

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There is a lot to love in the film.  The details of the main characters’ relationships, their unstated backstory, their ambitions are beautifully put across.  The apartment itself, with its long history of human tragedy has a spooky presence.  And there are some nicely sinister moments pulled out by the slow burn approach, such as the way the husband’s complicity is gradually reviewed, and the jolt as Rosemary realises that the coven has acquired a personal belonging of each of its victims in order to curse them.  When we do get to see the removed paintings in the Castevets’ apartment, they are suitably disturbing – the burning church, for example.

The technical delivery of the filming is unobtrusively superb, with long takes and perfect camera angles.  The many older characters are played by big name actors and that adds a sheen of quality to all the minor parts in the film as well as to the sinister neighbours, the Castevets.  Ruth Gordon’s performance as Minnie is terrifying, perhaps inspiring the character of Ros in Monsters, Inc: "I'm watching you, Wazowski. Always watching. Always!" 

It’s debatable whether Mia Farrow was the best choice of the various actors that Polanski considered for the part of Rosemary.  I’d say Polanski got the best performance out of her that it was possible to get, and that he bent the character to benefit from Farrow’s appearance and personality (she was at the height of her dippy-hippy little girl persona at the time of filming).  But perhaps he wouldn’t have had to work so hard with another actor.  The vulnerability and elfin gauntness of Farrow has ended up becoming part of the character of Rosemary and a keynote of the film – I suspect this more a result of Polanski’s genius than Farrow’s.

One lesson to female viewers of the film is clear.  If your husband spontaneously gets enthusiastic about having a child to the extent of putting up wallcharts marking ovulation dates and filling the apartment with roses, it’s time to run.  Run like the wind and don’t look back.  That stuff NEVER happens without a Satanic motivation.

Personal Score: 8/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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