Rosemary’s Baby is simultaneously incredibly modern and incredibly dated

mia farrow rosemary woodhouse john cassavetes guy woodhouse rosemarys baby

The final Shocktober film was my wife’s contribution. Neither of us had seen Rosemary’s Baby, and both were encouraged by its inclusion on so many “scariest movies ever made” lists. It certainly has the best pedigree of the month, if not the best reputation (that one probably goes to Halloween). It was the oldest one as well, and like Halloween it shows its age, albeit in a different way. Rosemary’s Baby is stuck firmly between two worlds – on the one hand it feels ahead of its time, and on the other too old fashioned.

The modernity is largely due to Roman Polanski’s direction and Mia Farrow’s performance. Although one could argue that the film’s series of great oners, especially the apartment tour in the first scene, are a holdover from the long takes of classic Hollywood, each shot feels purposefully composed rather than utilitarian. Although this is Polanski’s first film and he’s not operating at Chinatown-level yet, it’s clear he’s the most talented director of any of the Shocktober selection. (There’s also a surprising amount of nudity for a film made in 1968.) Farrow brings depth to a role that could come off as passive or, worse yet, as Lifetime movie-esque.

But the script and almost every other performance feel out of step with this modern sensibility. Polanski wrote the script himself from Ira Levin’s book, and much has been made of his decision to reveal the book’s big twist early and use the audience’s knowledge of this to increase the tension. Despite the difference this did or didn’t make, several key scenes land with less emphasis than they should: a frail old woman blocking access to a seemingly innocent closet with a heavy desk, or the mysterious neighbors’ houseguest committing suicide are more central to the plot than their one-off scenes imply. (One can easily imagine a modern director overdoing both, but something in between would’ve propelled the action along nicely.) And other than Farrow, the acting is hit and miss. Of all people, director John Cassavetes delivers what could be charitably characterized as rambling exposition and plot summary that wouldn’t sound out of place in a cheap studio film from the 1940s. He and Polanski famously clashed on set, with Cassavetes preferring naturalism and Polanski formalism – I’m not sure either one got what he wanted in the performance.

But what most dates Rosemary’s Baby, and not necessarily in a bad way, is the politics at play in it.  It’s hard for a modern viewer to imagine that 50 years ago the situations faced by the title character – marital rape, expected deference to (male) authority, lack of a say in her pregnancy – were so commonplace that they didn’t seem outlandish plot contrivances.

What the film lacks is an acknowledgement that it’s about anything deeper than its own plot.  While the adaptation is faithful, Polanski fails to develop its themes into anything more meaningful than the plot itself. A few years later, in the firmly modern, New Hollywood Chinatown, he would deliver something much more profound.  Until then, Rosemary’s Baby stands out as his attempt, conscious or not, to keep one foot in the past.

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