October 27, 2012

Deviled Egg

by Steve Dollar

Rosemary's Baby

A camera with a bird's eye view of Central Park West hovers above the Gothic spires of the Dakota to cue a lilting guitar and lachrymose strings as a woman's voice lightly coos a wordless 12-syllable melody: "La la la la la la ..." Krzysztof Komeda's theme, which recurs throughout in a variety of instrumentations (including a parodic-sinister analog synth version), sets the tone for Rosemary's Baby: a lullaby that conjures up a little knot in the stomach, even as its air of innocence shadowed by dread is knowingly devised as a tongue-in-cheek tweak for an audience primed to anticipate the unspeakable.

Roman Polanski's 1968 chiller has become so much a part of cinematic language and lore that watching it afresh—on a newly released Criterion Blu-ray and DVD—is to savor the pervasive influence of the film as a pop-cultural standard. A box-office sensation that brought Paramount Studios back from the grave, it's not as though the movie ever lacked for appreciation. It racked up $33 million, the eighth highest-grossing title in a year ruled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, just a few mil ahead of Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead.

Rosemary's Baby

But in decades since, its demon seedlings dropped far and wide across a fertile terrain of often less artful supernatural psychodramas, presaging various Omens and It's Alives—with their sagas of Satanic spawnings—while Polanski's expert staging of a fancy old apartment complex as a portal to hell anticipated everything from The Shining to Ghostbusters to the current ABC series 666 Park Avenue, which transposes Faustian themes to a post-Bloomberg New York where people will literally sign over their souls to keep their apartment. Mutandi mutandis!

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavettes, Mia Farrow) do no less when they take the lease on a spacious rental in The Bramford, an 1880s-vintage building whose mysterious history is dotted with tales of black magic, infanticide and sudden death—such as that of Mrs. Gardenia, the elderly occupant whose departure created a vacancy for the young marrieds: She, an almost giddy housewife eager to start a family; he, an aspiring actor with more drive than talent, looking to make it from motorcycle commercials into the major leagues. Everyone knows the rest. Not least among those details, of course, is Ruth Gordon's Oscar-winning turn as next door neighbor Minnie Castavets, a/k/a Beezlebub's Busybody, whose motor-mouthed delivery is at once disarming comic relief and the hallmark of a New York archetype, and the climactic reveal that's not a reveal, with one of the great, one-line zings in movie history: "He has his father's eyes."

Rosemary's Baby

The film's devilish pleasures abound, even more delicious in this extraordinarily vivid new edition, which captures everything from the varying tints of Farrow's pixie-cut hairdo (and the pasty awfulness of the potion Minnie concocts each day for the pregnant Rosemary) to the sinister oaken shadings of the Castavets abode. Depending how many times you've watched it, or how familiar you are with the film's incredibly strange history (Jason Zinoman's 2011 account of the New Horror, Shock Value, includes a chapter chock-full of particulars), a new viewing can make your spine tingle in so many different ways.

For me, it's a reminder of Polanski's mastery of interior spaces. He's a poet of hallucinatory paranoia, the dean of domestic intranquility, for whom the apartment building is a site of mental illness/social disease/death-urge. Coming so closely after Catherine Deneuve's king-hell meltdown in Repulsion (and looking ahead to The Tenant and even more recent slam-dunks like The Ghost Writer and Carnage), Rosemary's Baby is also very much Rosemary's Gilded Upper West Side Prison, where the all-too-malleable Ro seems too fragile to fend off her oppressors. "In every dream home, a heartache," lamented Brian Ferry once. Working from the galleys of Ira (The Stepford Wives) Levin's then-unpublished novel, which practically read like a screenplay already,Polanski turns what should be, for any Mad Men-era wife, an ideal for living, into a claustrophobic cell. His use of unusual angles, framed from ceiling or ankle-level perspectives, and lingering over odd details, throws everything askew. There are times when the camera itself seems like a dark spirit, at the very least a bat flapping at 24 frames per second, suggesting, too, many J-Horror hauntings to come. Obvious are conscious rhymes with Repulsion, such as Rosemary's frantic consumption of nearly raw meat (Deneuve preferred to let a dead rabbit rot, but it's close enough), and a hallway similar to the one that sprouted menacing hands in the earlier film. Instead of a gropers' gauntlet, though, the corridor suggests a narrow birth canal. It can't be a happy accident that Rosemary finally learns the truth about her maternity only after breaking through a secret closet entrance into the Castavets' apartment, where the devil's son cries for mama in a cradle draped in black silk and decorated with a dangling, inverted cross.

Rosemary's Baby

Given the Republican party's so-called "war on women" in the current election cycle, Rosemary's plight takes on an unintended relevance. Drugged by her controlling husband, who rents her womb for personal gain to a gang of elderly devil-worshippers who call up Satan to rape her as she writhes in half-conscious delirium, Rosemary might as well be an electoral metaphor. Is this where women will wind up under a Romney-Ryan administration? Farrow rather famously went on to mother a total of 15 children (11 adoptive), and as Rosemary is fiercely protective of her unborn child, even as her access to proper medical care and contact with anyone outside the Castavets' cabal is restricted. At one point, her gynecologist Dr. Sapirstein (part of the coven) admonishes her not to read any guidebooks about pregnancy, asserting the film's bossy patriarchy. Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made punchlines this week by declaring pregnancy caused by rape "a gift from God." He seems like a fervent Christian, which means he also believes in the existence of a literal Devil. One wonders what he'd make of Rosemary's baby?

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at October 27, 2012 11:37 AM