Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Film Review: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Fig. 1: Rosemary's Baby poster.
Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (based on the novel by Ira Levin) is captivating and haunting.  It tells the story of Rosemary, a young woman who moves to a new apartment with her husband, despite the building in which the apartment is located having a disturbing history. The film is very much a horror, but doesn't use the same methods of inciting fear in an audience as other horror films do; "The film works on multiple levels – as a supernatural thriller (though explicit paranormal elements are limited to a hallucinatory dream sequence and the final shot of the baby's eyes), as a psychological thriller about a paranoid pregnant woman who imagines herself at the centre of a conspiracy, and as the last word in marital betrayal, since the most despicable villain here is surely Guy, who allows his wife to be raped by the devil in exchange for an acting role." (Billson, 2010). The film is subtle, as it shows Rosemary and her husband finding a beautiful apartment, and truly beginning their lives as husband and wife. It all seems very idyllic, and there are many in the audience who would probably aim to have that kind of life one day, but everything is soon turned upside down.

Fig. 2: Rosemary (right) and Minnie (left).
What is most curious about the film is the character it's focused on. The film is titled Rosemary's Baby, and yet, the audience never sees the child. It is also the focus of all the main characters in the film, who show obvious concern for the health of the baby while brushing off Rosemary's pain. The only characters who are concerned for Rosemary are her young friends and older friend, Hutch, who express worries over her appearance. Meanwhile, Rosemary's husband and neighbours, Minnie and Roman Castevet, tell her she looks well and that everything she is experiencing is normal. So, despite Rosemary being the main character, the focus of almost all the characters is on her unborn child. This has an interesting effect, as the audience may feel that they are one of the few people who is there for Rosemary, witnessing what she goes through and believing her when she claims her neighbours are witches after her child. "We identify with Rosemary during her pregnancy, sharing her doubts and fears... When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen--and couldn't help her." (Ebert, 1968).

Fig. 3: Guy Woodhouse.
The choice by Roman and Minnie to invite Rosemary's husband, Guy (fig. 3), to their "coven" is also interesting, as it shows how they view Rosemary as a vessel for the Devil's child, and not much more. Even at the end, Roman asks Rosemary to be a mother to the child, but tells her she doesn't have to join the coven; they have what they want from her, and while her involvement is welcome, it is not required, and most likely not to be permanent. After the first dinner with Roman and Minnie, Guy becomes Rosemary's controller, as his role in the plot is simply to make sure the baby is born healthy, and prevent Rosemary from discovering what's going on. Though Guy seemed a fine husband at the beginning, it is clear he is very self-centered, as he agrees to offer his wife to Satan for his own selfish reasons; a successful career, at the expense of the people around him. 

Fig. 4: One of Rosemary's early outfits.
rosemarys baby
Fig. 5: Rosemary in red.
Throughout the film, Rosemary is shown wearing a number of beautiful outfits, usually in blue, yellow or other light, pastel colours (fig. 4). Even in very short scenes, Rosemary appears to always be wearing something new. On the night she conceives, she wears red (fig. 5), a colour associated with danger, blood, passion and the Devil. She is later drugged, stripped, painted and raped, before waking up naked the next morning. Rosemary's outfit choices change as her health deteriorates, becoming darker, except for a blue night gown and fluffy blue slippers. At the end of the film, she wears another blue nightgown (fig. 6) slightly different in design. This colour choice is interesting, as the Virgin Mary is often shown wearing blue, especially in renaissance art. The blue gowns stand out, as they seem to be the only floor-length outfits Rosemary owns, her other outfits usually being very short. The red outfit stands out for the same reason; none of Rosemary's other outfits match it in any way.

Fig. 6: The Blue Gown.
There are clear similarities between Rosemary and the Virgin Mary, as both are used as vessels to carry the child of a powerful being, with Rosemary's child essentially set to become Satan's equivalent of Jesus. Beyond this, they are opposites. Though Rosemary, portrayed by the talented Mia Farrow, is supposed to represent the modern woman of the 60s, she was raised catholic, and has dreams involving the Pope and a nun who was her teacher. Rosemary does not claim to, nor appear to be, overly religious, but there is some suggestion she feels guilty about not being so. She bows her head at the dinner table when the subject of religion comes up, and asks the imaginary Pope she sees -- whilst being raped -- if she is forgiven.

Fig. 7: Carol in Repulsion (1965)
There are certain discomforting qualities to Rosemary, the main one being how childlike she is, both in behaviour and appearance; "Polanski slyly exploits her mannered childishness. Even before she gets pregnant she wears shapeless little smocks and flat, little girl shoes. When she has her hair trendily cropped at Vidal Sassoon (one of the film's ubiquitous, precise notations of a cultural signpost for the year of the story, 1965-66) she is even more pathetically waifish." (Errigo, 2000). This is not new for Polanski, whose 1965 film Repulsion tells the story of Carol (fig. 7), a young woman whose mental state deteriorates when she is left in her apartment alone for a few days. Carol also possesses very childlike mannerisms, and, like Rosemary, is shown to be vulnerable and impressionable. There is something sickening about Polanski's decision to have these adult women portrayed as childish, then show them being raped and abused by characters who have more power.

Overall, Rosemary's Baby does an excellent job of keeping its audience interested. We want so desperately for Rosemary to come out of the situation on top, and feel like cheering for her every time she defies her husband, doctor and neighbours. "The best thing that can be said about the film, I think, is that it works. Polanski has taken a most difficult situation and made it believable, right up to the end." (Ebert, 1968). Most of the characters are incredibly realistic, especially Minnie Castevet, who truly embodies the irritating, nosy neighbour that almost everyone can relate to having at one point in their lives. The film ends with no real conclusion, as Rosemary smiles sweetly at her demonic looking child in its black cot, rocking it gently. It would seem odd for Rosemary to fight back for so long, only to give in and mother a monster -- even though this is exactly what happens in Ira Levin's novel -- , making the open ending far more appealing to the audience so they can decide the fate of Rosemary and her baby. Images:
Figure 1. Rosemary's Baby poster. (1968) [poster] At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 2. Rosemary (right) and Minnie (left). (1968) From: Rosemary's Baby. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film still] United States: Paramount Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 3. Guy Woodhouse. (1968) From: Rosemary's Baby. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film still] United States: Paramount Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 4. One of Rosemary's early outfits. (1968) From: Rosemary's Baby. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film still] United States: Paramount Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 5. Rosemary in red. (1968) From: Rosemary's Baby. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film still] United States: Paramount Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 6. The Blue Gown. (1968) From: Rosemary's Baby. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film still] United States: Paramount Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Figure 7. Carol in Repulsion (1965). (1965) From: Repulsion. Directed by: Roman Polanski [Film Still] Great Britain: Compton Pictures. At: (Accessed on: 10.03.16)

Ebert, R. (1968) 'Rosemary's Baby' In: 29.07.1968 [online] At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Billson, A. (2010) 'Rosemary's Baby: No 2 best horror film of all time' In: The Guardian 22.10.2010 [online] At: (Accessed on: 09.03.16)

Errigo, A. (2000) 'Rosemary’s Baby Review' In: Empire 01.01.2000 [online] At: (Accessed on: 10.03.16)


  1. A thoughtful review, Eleanor - and the Virgin Mary motif is a great spot and worth developing further. Your review hints at a slight distaste for Polanski's treatment of women on screen, and this is again another fascinating area for exploration. Hitchcock was another director whose 'sadism' for his female characters leaves some audiences uneasy - likewise Lars von Trier - and certainly Argento too (Suspiria) - you might want to think about the 'male gaze' and how it relates to women in horror...

    I did notice this typo - a fly in the ointment! *The film is very muhc a horror*

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  3. I noticed the typo too... :)
    Another engaging review Eleanor :) It sounds as though you enjoyed this rather disturbing production...