October 31, 2013

Classic Review: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski. Based upon the novel by Ira Levin.
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin, Victoria Vetri

Rosemary's Baby is widely regarded as a classic horror film. It certainly has some clever twists and creepy elements, but it ultimately left me underwhelmed. Furthermore, while Rosemary's Baby can be seen as having pro-feminist leanings, there are elements of the film that are highly problematic when it comes to it's depiction of sexual assault.

Rosemary (Mia Farrrow) and her new husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a new apartment and soon after, start trying to conceive a baby. One night, after they were planning on having sex, Rosemary falls into a deep sleep, in which she has a sequence of disturbing dreams. When she wakes up, she finds scratches along her body, which her husband claims he did to her while he had intercourse with her while she slept. Later, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant and she starts seeing Dr. Dr. Sapirstein when Guy insists, rather than see their old family physician. When Rosemary develops a sharp pain in her abdomen that won't stop, Dr. Sapirstein dismisses her concerns. As time progresses, Rosemary becomes suspicious that she is trapped in a plot involving witchcraft and becomes increasingly desperate to escape, only to find all of her efforts thwarted.

The Queering
As I understand it, Rosemary's Baby has strongly resonated with woman over the decades due to the way it captures the typical fears and anxieties that can emanate from anyone expecting a child. Furthermore, the way Rosemary is carefully controlled by both her husband and those around her certainly mimics the way society both overtly and subtly takes control of women's bodies when they are pregnant. Rosemary finds everything, her appearance, her weight, and her diet, constantly commented on and criticized by others. Meanwhile, her pains and fears are dismissed as both crazy and further reason for her to be placed under increasing systems of control, until finally she is locked up and sedated right before she is to give birth. Therefore, once the final "twist" is revealed, that this was all the work of a group of Satanists (who had recruited her husband early on in the film), can be seen as the film taking the evil that is typically done to women (particularly pregnant woman) and making it literally real.

For a variety of reasons, I do not wish to dismiss this interpretation out of hand. However, while watching Rosemary's Baby I found myself looking at the film from a rather different lens, one that I should point out at the outset involves me having a very biased opinion of Roman Polanski, due to his conviction of sexually assaulting a thirteen year old minor and the subsequent rape apologism that spewed forth from Polanski's supporters.

What I'm getting at, is that there are elements in Rosemary's Baby that can be seen as forms of rape apologism.

I'll start with the night in which Guy drugs Rosemary so that she can be impregnated by Satan. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds scratches on her body, which Guy admits that he did to her while he was having sex with her while she was asleep. In other words, he just admitted that he raped her, which the film never really strongly condemns as being rape, at least for my tastes. Instead, we later find out that Guy drugged her so that she could be instead raped by Satan, but the film doesn't really treat this as shocking until this is revealed. As it stands, it seems almost as if the film is agreeing with the legal standards of the time that a woman cannot be raped by her husband, thanks to the spousal exemption standards that existed.

To put it another way, in either scenario, Rosemary is raped, gets pregnant, and chooses to have the child in spite of having been raped. The only element that really has changed by the end, in terms of what we the audience and the character know, is who the actual rapist was. Guy simply goes from being the sexual assailant to being an accessory to rape. The fact that the crime itself occurred does not change, but the film doesn't treat it as a crime until the end.

Furthermore, another problematic element here, with regards to Rosemary being sexually assaulted, is the "Devil Made Me Do It" element that the final plot twist evokes, which helps soften the culpability for Guy. Rather than "The Devil Made Me Do It", it's "The Devil Actually Did It". Following this line of reasoning to the end, and one must conclude that the film is evoking the idea of "Stranger Danger" by blaming the crime on the devil, while minimizing the danger that frequently comes from more domestic sources.

The other really problematic element comes from the end, where Rosemary runs around, making an increasingly number of irrational mistakes and puts herself in unnecessary danger as a result. It takes her waaaaaaay too long to realize that Dr. Sapirstein may be a part of the conspiracy against her. Given the fact he was the one prescribing the strange drink for her, he should have been suspect number one. Then there is the way she blabs her entire tale to her new doctor, including the fact that she suspects Dr. Sapirstein and others of practicing witchcraft. Honestly, there was no reason to have included that detail, all she should have said in that scene was "help me, my husband is an abusive fuck and my old doctor, Dr. Sapirstein was an enabler. I don't want them to know where I am." In all fairness, this part could be included to comment on how society conditions people to not believe woman when they are claiming to have been abused. But it undermines the point due to the fact that a doctor has every reason to believe that a person may in fact be mentally ill, especially when they claim to be the victim of a conspiracy of actual witches.

Maybe this is the result of having watched too much Buffy: The Vampire Slayer but honestly, watching a female protagonist act this foolishly is difficult and makes me think that it is set up to enable victim blaming. There were points where Rosemary showed signs of autonomy and intelligence, which makes her ultimate inability to escape from the clutches the bad guys appear to be all the more her fault.

In short, while Rosemary's Baby may in fact capture the uncertainty and difficulties of being pregnant, by minimizing the culpability of Guy in the rape of his wife and evoking the idea of victim blaming, I find myself questioning the films message and intentions.

Rosemary's Baby is only for those interested in films solely for their historical value. This is one troubled pregnancy not worth trying to save.

The Rating
** out of ****


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