Time Out calls this film “One of the best American films of the 1960s, period. Full stop.” Rosemary’s Baby follows newlyweds Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) as they move into a building with a history of unusual happenings. After Rosemary becomes pregnant, a series of events cause her to believe her neighbors are a coven of witches plotting against her.
The movie is a fitting movie to watch at this time of year. Europeans have long believed that dark forces roamed the earth on All Hallow’s Eve – October 31. Rosemary’s Baby demonstrates the power the principled individual has in overcoming them.
Governmental and Non-Governmental Oppression
The movie starts with mention of government interference shortly after the camera pans across the New York skyline and settles on the exterior of “The Bramford” (The Dakota located in Central Park West) where the rental agent Mr. Nicklas (Elisha Cook Jr.) is showing the newlywed couple an apartment and states “We’d raise [the rent on this apartment] if we were allowed to” – an allusion to what many an observant New Yorker would recognize to be the widely revered (by insiders) and widely hated (by outsiders) rent stabilization laws. Rent stabilization laws enact government imposed rent ceilings on apartments. As many writers across the political spectrum have long pointed out, such laws are a tremendous encroachment on reason (as they so deftly harm the destitute they are purported to help) as well as property rights.
The remainder of freedom issues in Rosemary’s baby from that point forward are non-governmental. There are negative depictions of government’s presence – a brusque police officer, a distant brother kept by the navy instead of helping his sister. However, the government’s roll is tangential in it all. The neighboring community is the oppressor in this film, the encroacher on basic freedoms.
The film’s social critique goes beyond a mere libertarian critique of government. It also shows non-governmental oppression. A coven of witches wildly haunts the young protagonist Rosemary – bringing terror to her life and an imposition on her liberty. The tale perceived by her is so wild, and without solid third party verification in the context of the film that until the very end, the viewer cannot be certain whether the protagonist is mentally ill or actually being stalked by a coven of witches. This conflict brilliantly added to the tension of the film.
In what amounts to tyranny of the majority, Guy and their neighbors decide as a group what is best for Rosemary and proceed to violate her in such a strange variety of ways that are still capable of disturbing even the modern viewer.
We see in Guy a husband unwilling to honor his wife as he would himself, through constant violations of Rosemary’s basic human rights and dignity. From generally being a cold character that the audience never gets to know, it becomes easy to look at Guy as the archetype of a dishonorable, tyrant, eager to manipulate others. Slowly the audience comes to see Rosemary’s dear husband as being the greatest threat to the protagonist’s wellbeing. With little attacks and demonstrations of heartlessness, this sense is clear, yet the certainty of the betrayal is not revealed until the very end of the film. The greatest betrayals of the film are able to happen only because of Guy’s help.
“Is Guy on Rosemary’s team or working against her?” is a constant struggle the audience member finds himself asking. We find ourselves in moral gray area as we ask ourselves “Did the husband just rape his wife?” “Did he really drug her?” “Did he really allow others to make an altar of her in a satanic ritual?” “Did he convince her that she was crazy?” “Did he convince her to conceive, carry a satanic demon baby to term, and then lie to her about it actually dying?” “Did he really trade their first born child and temporarily his wife to a coven of witches in exchange for success in his career?”
An Anti-Social Film?
A new group of friends takes Rosemary under their spell while an old group of friends almost offers escape. The escape of her old friends is incomplete though, for in the paternalistic world she lives in, a woman trying to tell Rosemary’s story is seen as a hysterical (hystera, the Greek word for “uterus” is at the root of this word) woman in need of medical and psychiatric care. Just as she could not trust her closest friend – Guy, neither could she trust her female friends or the doctor that they sent her to. Her trust, in fact, put in doctors, fails her repeatedly – as at least three members of the medical community plot against her.
While the viewer might see the movie as a statement of the anti-social phrase “you can never trust anyone but yourself,” it is important to remember that quite to the contrary, if it were not for an old friend, Hutch (Maurice Evans), insisting on remaining part of her life and defending her best interests unconditionally – with his simple gift of a book – Rosemary would never have understood the plot against her. The importance of community has powerful beneficial examples and powerful parasitic examples in this film.
Polanski the Auteur
Throughout the Polanskian color of blood-red displayed often and prominently. Subtle plot exposition leaves the viewer challenging the protagonist through befuddling shows of witchcraft, horror stories, and urban lore. This is not a graphic Halloween film, though it may have been considered such in its era, borrowing from other auteurs such as Hitchcock, much of the graphic is off screen, unseen by the viewer, making this film all the more timeless as it does not have to keep up with cutting edge makeup artistry, computer graphics, and camerawork depicting gore.
In the end we are left with a female protagonist who has beaten them all and survived. The power is in her hands to decide to be corrupted by the coven or to destroy all that the coven has worked for as she is gently allowed to cradle the demon baby.
We have a triumph of the justified individual over the tyranny of the majority. An individual protecting her liberty over a community blindly exercising their will through a logic of “might makes right.” Over the course of this 136 minute film, cosmic battles are fought in the context of Rosemary’s life and in the end, the strong female protagonist, the champion of liberty is victorious.