Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Okay, here's your word of warning: it's almost impossible to discuss Rosemary's Baby and Roman Polanski without talking about rape. Now last year we all learned this topic is a big trigger for people so if you maybe don't want to read a big fat essay about rape from somebody who's thankfully never had an experience with that and think I'm in way over my head then here's your chance to turn back. 

Roman Polanski has got to be one of the most controversial figures in film history. A Polish man born in France, he's without a doubt an accomplished and skilled director. Chinatown is a stone cold classic and I'd argue his Macbeth that he made for Playboy is one of the best filmed Shakespeare adaptations out there. Of course, his infamy in the pop culture landscape is due to different, darker reasons. In 1969 his eight month pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by Charles Manson's cult in one of the most high profile murder cases of all time. Nearly 10 years later, in 1977, Polanski allegedly drugged and definitely raped a 13 year old girl during a photo shoot. After pleading guilty, he fled to Europe where he's been living in exile ever since. He's still directing, and he's still pretty great at it, even winning an Oscar for The Pianist in 2002.

As a result of this, Polanski's been a figure whose work is incredibly hard to discuss without it eventually dovetailing into arguments on that case. Some allege that the girl was consenting and it was merely statutory. Others say that enough time has passed for him to be "forgiven" and allowed to come back to the United States. Myself, I don't claim to be an expert on the case or anything, besides what I've read here and there, but the fact remains that he definitely unlawfully and forcibly pushed himself onto this girl and then ran away before he could be convicted. Is bringing him back to the US and locking him up the solution? I don't know, I don't know if it's possible for there to be a solution to something like this. 

Despite his moral misgivings, and they are sizable, you really cannot deny that the man isn't a master filmmaker. His directing style is meticulous and detail oriented, so not a single frame of his films is ever wasted. The films he makes often have a psychological bent to them, and you can see that he clearly understands his characters intimately. Rosemary's Baby, his Hollywood debut and arguably his best film, is no exception to this. It's a masterpiece, beautifully acted and shot in a way that, although it has no jump scares, has an unsettling horror to it that lingers with you for hours, if not days, after watching. Part of the reason it does this because it taps into a very human fear, a fear that Polanski himself would exploit a decade later: the loss of control.

The problem with most portrayals of rape in media is that they're done in a way that feels exploitative, only being included as shock value or done in such a way that's downright degrading (see: Laura Croft facing an attempted rape to make the players "root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character"). In other words, how do you approach a subject matter like rape without making it seem like a cheap ploy for sympathy or, worse, a way to show a female character is "vulnerable"?

The scene where Rosemary (a never better Mia Farrow) is drugged and raped by the members of the satanic cult is shot in a way that blurs the line between reality and delusion. She's hallucinating in and out of consciousness, her perspective floating between the dreams in her head and the nightmare around her. She can't move, forced into the basement of their apartment for the ritual. At one point the movie switches to her POV, showing her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) and her neighbors the Castevets (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) standing around her, bare naked. Her husband sees that her eyes are open, and that she can see them, to which Mrs. Castevet barks in reply "She don't see. As long as she ate the [drugged] mousse she can't see nor hear. She's like dead." Symbolically, this is the most important part of the sequence. The rape is necessary as a plot point (the movie is about her baby, and there's only one way to get a baby...) and the most obvious symbol of her loss of control, but Mrs. Castevet's line goes beyond forcing the girl into doing something she doesn't want to. It's about manipulation, and doing so in such a way that she won't notice. 

I was about to write a paragraph on how the first time somebody watches this movie it's ambiguous if Rosemary is being delusional or not, but then as I thought about it more it's actually pretty clear she's not. Everything is telegraphed so much only an idiot would be able to watch the movie and honestly be unsure on the true nature of the Castevets. Instead, when we watch Rosemary slowly discover the conspiracy around her while everybody denies it, the tension doesn't stem from the question "is she crazy or not" but instead from "how can she possibly escape this?" We know the answer is "no" and we know it from the moment Mrs. Castevet tells Guy "She's like dead." It's set in stone that this is what will happen, it's been planned out too far ahead for Rosemary to stop it now. But the idea is put out inn front of us, the tantalizing thought that she might catch on in time. 

It's a similar theme to the one explored in The Wire, albeit one that's less rooted in apathy and more on conspiracy. You could even go back further. There's a reason for all those references to the Pope visiting New York and Rosemary's upbringing being Catholicism. Her baby, the antichrist, was fated to come into the world from the moment Revelations was written. There's no way she can stop this, the wheel was set into motion centuries before she was born. That's what scares us about this movie, the idea of predetermination set up by powers far beyond our understanding. Rosemary is experiencing that on both a cosmic and a personal level.

That's what makes the ending, her seeing the demonic child in it's crib and rocking it gently with a smile on her face, so heartbreaking and frightening. We want to see her fight her destiny, prove that she has free will and end this cycle because that's what people in movies do. They take control of their destiny, make it their own because nobody can tell them what to do but themselves. That's how movies happen because that's what we like to believe. This is America! We didn't let Britain tell us what we want to do, we didn't let Hitler, we don't let anybody! Rosemary's Baby assumes the opposite. After fighting for so long there's nothing to do but let fate wash over you. She smiles, accepting her role in the grand scheme, even though it will lead to the end of the world.

A year after this movie came out, Sharon Tate would be killed by cult members not too far off from the satanists in Rosemary's Baby, who similarly thought the world would soon be coming to an end. Eight years after that, Roman Polanski would rape a girl in a manner eerily close to the way Rosemary is in the film, with a drugged drink. Is it coincidence? Fate? Probably not, but that's the genius of Rosemary's Baby,  it brings those thoughts that hang out in the back of your mind, that you have no control over anything you do, and brings them to the terrifying spotlight. On the Wicker Scale, which is dumb but something I am fated to do, Rosemary is hiding in a phonebooth while Christopher Lee stands waiting.

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