Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby screens October 21 & 22 at the New Beverly.
“But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
Guy: You know what Dr. Hill is? He’s a Charlie Nobody, that’s who he is!
Rosemary: I’m tired of hearing about how great Dr. Sapirstein is!
Guy: Well, I won’t let you do it Ro.
Rosemary: Why not?
Guy: Well, because… because it wouldn’t be fair to Sapirstein.
Rosemary: Not fair to Sap… – what do you mean? What about what’s fair to me?!
“Please don’t read books… And don’t listen to your friends, either.” So says Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a movie famous as a classic horror film, a masterpiece, but one that also serves as a powerful allegory for women being told to shut up, let the men talk and … “you’re crazy!” Every time I watch the film, I have to wonder: Did novelist Ira Levin (and Polanski himself) listen in on an OBGYN appointment? Did his wife or girlfriend come home one day and complain that a doctor told her she was nuts because she felt, as Rosemary will state, like she had a tight wire in her stomach because she was actually fucking pregnant? Did she get a “bad” haircut that was, in truth, fantastic? (Polanski returns to the unfairly maligned haircut in his highly underrated, brilliant Bitter Moon). Did someone berate their wife for not wanting to eat a dessert with a “chalky undertaste?”
These scenes are so specific, that beyond the pact with the Devil story, it’s hard to ignore how much fragile Rosemary has to endure simply based on everyone telling her what to do. Forgive me for using this overused term, but it’s one of the most mansplaining movies of all time. It’s like being stuck in a satanic vortex of mansplaining where you’re going to have to accept your devil child or run far, far away just to get these people to stop talking AT YOU… Well, for Rosemary, the love of the child supersedes devil worshipers, the medical profession and her terrible husband, and she will accept her newborn, no matter what they’ve done to his eyes. It’s, in the end, heartbreaking and extremely touching.
Rosemary starts off as the obedient domestic, one who yearned for her gorgeous digs (the historic Dakota) and we watch her spruce up the beautiful, though creepy apartment, while her nosy but amusing neighbors (a spellbinding, scarily charming Sidney Blackmer and the hilarious, coarse, at times terrifying Ruth Gordon whose comic timing and movements are genius), become far too involved with her affairs. And then things start spiraling. There’s her insensitive actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes – who is the biggest shit heel in the movie, really), calling her rightfully concerned friends a bunch of “not very bright bitches” and sleeping with her, drugged. We all know the story – Guy strikes a deal with the Devil-worshipers (he’s an actor, perhaps he’d lean toward Scientology had he been exposed to that). He performs a “necrophilia” sexual act with her, and then there’s those herbs, tannis root, and, once again, the famed Dr. Sapirstein (played by a fantastic, condescendingly evil Ralph Bellamy) who will do what a lot of men do – tell her she’s hysterical. Well, she’s not. As we know, she’s right all along.
Polanski is a master, perhaps the greatest master, of trapping his characters in a paranoid frenzy – often housebound, and often proven correct in their fears, which makes the anxiety all the more unsettling (The Tenant is his crowning achievement with this). They are not insane, not always, but they will go insane with how insane everyone thinks they are (often for valid reasons, Repulsion, chiefly, though the film is empathetic towards her madness). In the case of Rosemary’s Baby, Farrow’s Rosemary, all thin and child-like and little-voiced with her perfect elocution and need to please, is told she’s overthinking and going batty, while she very movingly tries to have her baby and question authority. She makes for a curious pairing with Polanski’s own mild-mannered Trelkovsky in The Tenant, a character who is also growing increasingly paranoid, and, in many ways, suffering some kind of existential breakdown partly based on how everyone treats him. Terribly. And why? He’s a nice fellow, he doesn’t seem to deserve this. Like Rosemary, Trelkovsky is a small, nervous person (in this case a Polish file clerk) who also moves into a new apartment with weird neighbors (similarly played by veteran film actors – here Melvyn Douglas and Shelley Winters) and witnesses bizarre scenes in the bathroom across the courtyard and, in one of the picture’s creepiest moments, a tooth found in the wall. He doesn’t have the closure of Rosemary, but perhaps in crazy solidarity with the beleaguered, distrusted woman, he becomes a sort of woman, donning a dress and jumping out of his window. He just can’t stand it any longer.
So watching Rosemary, with all of her small strength, pack up that suitcase, hugely pregnant, and lugging it out to see the doctor she wanted to see in the first place, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin, perfectly cast) is a powerful moment – you are so tense for her, you so want people to believe her, after she very intelligently figures out via Scrabble: “All of them witches,” that the first time you watch it, you can’t believe what Dr. Hill does. Rosemary learns what the truth is (Trelkovsky never does), but Trelkovsky’s terror of disturbing people, coming off as a problem, questioning authority, is closely aligned with Rosemary – and women. Don’t speak up, don’t cause problems because, in the worst case scenario, the world will make you insane. Or think you’re insane. No wonder Rosemary is decorating the apartment with so much yellow, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman yellow wallpaper in the bedroom, not an intention of the filmmaker, likely, but it always sticks out to me when I see it. And no wonder Trelkovsky slaps a crying kid in the park. Look what Rosemary went through. No babies, please.
Since this is a movie about pregnancy, the womb is an interesting part to consider. As I have written about Polanski in the past, he seemingly “emerged from the womb” understanding the art of filmmaking and in, addition, “understanding the art of wombs — diseased, depraved, disordered and of course, provocative wombs. Cruelty, violence, twisted sexuality, madness, absurdity — many of Polanski’s hallmark obsessions — are almost always confined to one space. The director loves nothing more than trapping his characters in devil worshiping apartment buildings, phallic, knife-wielding boat trips and unhappy, unsound houses.” He also loves casting women, nervous, interesting, desirable women, who have depth and mystery that confound the men around them. From Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, rightfully neurotic given that horrible secret about her father, to Natasha Kinksi’s Tess trapped in a cruel society, full of shame and judgment, the women are up against a hard, scolding world. Why must they endure this? They shouldn’t. And they’re not all crazy: As Rosemary cries out: “This is no dream! This is really happening!”