The Manipulatively Implicit
We can assume one reason why Rosemary's Baby remains such an important piece of horror cinema is that it offers a very profound duel attack on its central character. Her husband and the neighbours don't only play with her mind, they also insist on the invasion of her body. In the wonderfully tense and paranoiac final half-hour of the film, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) doesn't just fret over what is going on in her head, but also precisely what is inside her womb. When she talks to the baby she will soon give birth to, feeling safe and protected however briefly in the apparently helpful Dr Hill's office, she whispers to the bump that everything will be all right. Is she here talking to herself or talking to the baby, or is it an interesting and odd example of both at the same time? It's as if she knows her mind isn't sound but her body must remain so as she wishes for the well-being of her child. She has both a maternal instinct and a paranoiac sense. She also, of course, hopes her mind isn't playing tricks on her but if she happens to be proved right it means that the baby is not quite hers. In this story, which reveals that her actor-husband has sold his soul to the devil in the form of their first-born that will be given over to Satan, her mind wants to prove that others are taking advantage of her (that she isn't mad), but such confirmation means that she is carrying not only her child but Satan's too. At a certain point, we know that the film can't possibly offer us a happy ending because Rosemary is caught in a proper bind: a mind that wants to prove Satan has invaded her body; and a maternal need that knows she must look after the child no matter the source of its conception.
On the one hand, we have film as body horror, a sub-genre of the horror film especially popular in the eighties and evident in Alien, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Hellraiser and Tetsuo, but obviously apparent much earlier if we can include Rosemary's Baby (and of course The Exorcist), yet whose roots go as far back as Frankenstein. On the other, we have gaslight cinema: films with usually male characters convincing women that their suspicions are unfounded and everything is in their head: from Gaslight to Suspicion, The Girl on the Train to The Nun. If the former is almost always found in horror cinema, the latter is evident in a variety of genres from the thriller to the drama. It can often be predicated on an important twist (as in The Girl on the Train), or just one aspect of a devastating existence (as we find in Jacques Rivette's masterpiece The Nun). The body horror film is often closely linked to disgust, a fear of what can occupy the inside of our body; the gaslight film to what others can do to our minds. Rosemary's Baby ferociously combines the two. Carol Clover points out aspects of the former when speaking of possession in cinema, saying "orifices and spaces are themselves not the whole story. I have mentioned in passing the superfluity of reproductive themes in the possession film, and it is now time to consider them in some detail. The spectacular example is, of course, Rosemary's Baby. Rosemary's possession comes about because, as a female, she is naturally enterable but it also takes the very specific form of pregnancy and Satan the very specific form of a growing fetus." (Men, Women and Chainsaws). When in the late seventies and early eighties the slasher film often killed people it was in a sense equal opportunities, no matter the regular trope of skinny dipping or showering women getting slashed to pieces in endless reruns of Psycho. But at least men got killed too, usually in other situations and circumstances (like having sex or going to the toilet). There is no intrinsic reason for a man not to be killed going into a shower and finding himself at the end of a grinning murderer's knife. There is only a cultural one. Rosemary is intrinsically violated as a woman: it is why Guy (John Cassavetes) can sell his soul to the devil but his body remains focused on cultivating what the neighbour Mrs Castavets (Ruth Gordon) regards as his good looks as she asks Rosemary what movies he's been in. Nobody is going to impregnate him as this particular Faustian pact means that he merely has to offer up his wife's womb for a nine-month rental.
Yet rather than insisting Polanski has made a misogynistic film (which we will come back to), better to see it as a vulnerable one, the middle film in a trilogy of apartment works that was initiated with Repulsion and culminated in The Tenant. Though Polanski returned to the centrality of the apartment in Death and the Maiden and Carnage, they don't possess, so to speak, the force of these three: the sense in which in Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant he was working out of a kind of limited forcefield, indicating characters shouldn't be living where they are. If it is often said that a location happens to be a character in the film, Polanski gives his apartments in these three works a deterministic dimension: would the tragedies that befall Carol, Rosemary and Trelkovsky have happened if they'd been living somewhere else? If we are so keen to see the film as a pertinent work for our times as well as its own, it rests on the various dimensions of its vulnerability, Polanski's capacity to see in life where vulnerability lies and then to extract the maximum amount of horror from the situation. Many another director deals with vulnerability sensitively, and many a director deals with horror without much vulnerability. It is that Polanski deals with horror vulnerably which makes him unusual. Romero and Wes Craven rarely move so far into a character's perspective to achieve that vulnerability, while Carpenter seeks usually a voyeuristic remove and De Palma a temporary identificatory glee all the better to shatter it never more so than in Carrie. Yet we can also look at the role Cassavetes plays in De Palma's Fury next to his part in Rosemary's Baby to see how much closer Polanski gets to the fear of intimacy while De Palma emphasises the external will to violence. At the end of De Palma's film, a key female character manages to use her mental powers to make Cassavetes' character literally explode, an absolute inversion of the Cassavetian problem in the director's own films where internal explosions are common, where characters are constantly losing their tempers and with moods mysterious to themselves. Polanski, of course, doesn't go anywhere as far as Cassavetes in the domestic sphere even if they are both frequently apartment directors (Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams). If Polanski is seen as a filmmaker with little in common with Cassavetes he nevertheless shares with the independent auteur an interest in emotional and psychological fragility that takes him quite far from most of the other key horror filmmakers of the period.
Cassavetes by all accounts was never really interested in form, or at least a version of it that controlled the audience. Vulnerability of character was a shared experience rather than a manipulated one. Polanski was aways very interested in this manipulation and his cinematographer William A. Fraker gives examples of it when working on the film. He explains that when the devil-worshipping neighbour Minnie (Gordon) arrives in the flat and asks if she can use the telephone in the bedroom, Minnie has already pushed her way into the apartment and we see that Polanski has used a very short lens (25mm) to give us a strong sense of that pushiness. As she makes the call, Fraker says he initially framed it in a manner that allows us to see her full body in the shot while she makes the call but Polanski insisted instead he frame her partially, so that we don't see her legs, shoulders or head. Fraker exclaimed "you can't see her! Exactly. Exactly." When Fraker watched it with a full audience on its release, he could see that the shot perfectly controlled the audience's perceptions as they craned their necks to try and see more. (Masters of Light)
Oddly, the shot Fraker describes isn't in the finished film: the film cuts abruptly from the sitting room to Minnie and Rosemary talking in the kitchen before she leaves. Yet even if Fraker's memory is playing tricks on him, there are several other examples which make the same point that are in the film. One is when Guy and Rosemary go for dinner at the Castevets apartment and Polanski and Fraker show the camera moving in on Rosemary's shoulder and up to her face as she looks out of frame towards the sitting room door. The film then cuts to the sitting room in a shot that would be too close to be Rosemary's point of view as it shows us through the door frame smoke passing across the room but with Guy and Mr Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) out of sight. It captures very well Rosemary's feelings, the first stages of an exclusion that will become total as we might wonder what they are talking about. Polanski then cuts to Guy and Castevet in conversation but what matters isn't the discussion they are having but what might have already been said, and Rosemary's instinctive feeling of being left out. Cutting directly to the sitting room would have removed this moment of vulnerable exclusion that will be vital to the rest of the film. Equally, when Rosemary finally gets to see Dr Hill, who she hopes will believe her story that Guy is involved in a devilish cult, Polanski shows Rosemary in a medium-long shot from the kitchen as she is framed inside the door of Hill's office. All we initially see of Dr Hill (Charles Grodin) are his feet and shins. We instinctively don't trust him not least because we don't see him. Who is this vague figure we may think visually, which we then turn into an assumption that leaves him as suspicious in our mind. Polanski suggests if a character is present partially there is a good chance that we can't trust them: we are only getting a side of them. Sure enough, Dr Hill proves very untrustworthy indeed as he informs Guy and others that Rosemary is in his practise as they come to pick her up.
While Hill is given an initial partial view, Rosemary throughout the film is the character with whom we sympathise and identify not least because of the camera' positioning. It isn't just that it gives us a full view of her, it keeps giving us limited views of those around her. Now, of course, the film was based on Ira Levin's very successful book "four million copies flew off store shelves" (Vanity Fair) according to Rosemary Counter. Clearly, the book was a success without utilising techniques exclusive to cinema. But imagine objectively the situation. A patient goes to the doctor and insists that their husband has done a deal with a satanic cult to impregnate her and steal her baby, all the while the patient shows signs of nervous agitation, rushing and gulping down her words. Most would see Dr Hill as the voice of reason and get her the help necessary, which is to return her to the loving fold of the family and friends that she has traduced in her chaotic state. Sure, horror cinema works with a high degree of suspension of disbelief; even a poor filmmaker can persuade an audience to side with the delusional over the rational, with those who believe in the supernatural over the natural. That is part of what we can call the generic contract. But within that contract there is an additional formal prowess that the best horror filmmakers master. Though Polanski is a filmmaker less obviously generically embroiled than Wes Craven, John Carpenter or Dario Argento, closer to an occasional visitor to the genre like William Friedkin, he masters in Rosemary's Baby the art of formal assertion that can prove very important to the genre. If for example someone were to insist they knew right away Dr Hill wasn't to be trusted and you asked them why, and they replied it was an instinct, then we could show how Polanski allows the formal aspect to turn a visual fact on his part into a vague feeling on the viewer's. One of the dangers of the modern horror film is that it works with tropes rather than formal techniques, generates the knowing aspects of the genre rather than the subconscious fears that then require a form. If two of the best contemporary horror films happen to be Open Water and Wolf Creek it resides partly in what might be perceived as their artlessness. The first shows a couple of scuba divers left out in the middle of the ocean; the latter focuses on three tourists in the Australian wild. In each instance, the location isn't chiefly a horror movie scenario the haunted house, the cabin in the middle of nowhere, the sleepover, empty suburbia, the hick town, the shark-infested waters (though Wolf Creek has aspects of course of the hick town and Open Water will indeed show sharks) but an environment that can serve a variety of genres. The films play down rather than up the generic. Perhaps the more assertively generic the location, the harder it is to eschew the expectations that are immediately put in place by the milieu the filmmaker draws from. Wes Craven may have become a director of horror caught in franchise cinema but his suggestion that "I think, bottom line, the advice I would give is don't duplicate what you've seen before. That seems to be the primary mistake that young filmmaker's make. They've seen every film in the world" (bloodydisgusting.com) seems pertinent. But one way of making an original piece of horror cinema is not necessarily to draw on life, as if that is a clear opposition to cinema, but to see life cinematically rather than generically. Polanski doesn't seem to be asking how he can scare the audience but instead how can he generate the maximum amount of identification with his central character, who in 'life' might just seem like another person losing her mind. How does he film, if you like, that mind?
There are hallucinatory moments in Rosemary's Baby, a famous dream sequence when she is getting raped by the devil, but the film is never better than when appearing objective but actually revelling in subjectivity. If someone were to say Dr Hill is awful because we see him with horns coming out of his head there is the explicit manifestation that needn't resort to the idea that it is the viewer's instinct. But often the placing of the camera, the use of certain lenses, the dictation of sound, can all generate a sense in which the untoward is upon us without knowing immediately how or why. Here we can think of the scene immediately preceding the dream/rape. Rosemary is standing over the bin when she starts to feel dizzy and the camera watches her in low-angled close up before it cuts to Guy watching TV while she staggers towards the sitting room. Catching her as she falls he props her up while they make their way along the corridor towards the bedroom. She falls in the hallway, he scoops her up and puts her into bed. What we are seeing is a dutiful husband helping his wife who doesn't feel too well, but there is an off-centre feel to the scene that suggests all isn't as it seems. When Guy looms over her after putting her to bed the low-angled tight-close up makes him appear unavoidably sinister. Here Polanski is manipulative but that isn't the same as being explicit. This comes in the following scene set on a yacht, which then moves onto showing Rosemary lying on a mattress, getting abused by the devil. Polanski, always a manipulative filmmaker was only occasionally an explicit one, in contrast to Cassavetes who as an actor and director was often explicit but rarely manipulative. In the films Cassavetes made around the same time as Rosemary's Baby, Faces and Husbands, Cassavetes directs as if always searching out the messiest of moments and situations, seeking character confrontation and showing often clammy, awkward connections. "When people were walking out of Husbands and Faces en masse I never felt bad about that because I thought that it was pain that was taking them out of the theatre and I thought that it wasn't the fact that the film was bad. It was that they couldn't take it..." Cassavetes adds, "I've often been criticised for the unnecessary length of some of the scenes in both Faces and Husbands. In some ways the length of the scenes and duration of the shots are accidents in that they weren't planned before we actually shot them. But they are important to the effect." (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) Polanski's work before Rosemary's Baby was freer but certainly Knife in the Water and Repulsion know precisely how to turn the screws on, and later in Chinatown cinematographer John Alonzo was as admiring of Polanski as Fraker happened to be. "He brought everybody up to a level of competence; the prop man, the production designer, the wardrobe designer, all the heads of departments involved in the movie." (Masters of Light) What is clear is that Polanski could manipulate without being explicit; Cassavetes could be explicit without manipulation. Indeed, Polanski acknowledged even in Cassavetes' performance there was an aspect that he couldn't easily work with, as though Cassavetes' acting was just too scattered for the sort of tight work Polanski demanded: "he's one of those Method actors who constantly scratch their ear or grin, and it's difficult for him to put himself in the skin of another character, like Guy...it goes against the grain. It caused problems in working. I had to do a big deal of editing." (Polanski)
Yet our point isn't to talk especially about production details more to emphasise the difference between the three notions (the implicit, the explicit and the manipulative), and to suggest that Polanski is a master of implicit manipulation; Cassavetes explicit un-manipulation. Polanski's approach seems to us especially useful for horror cinema and why he remains a master of a genre he only occasionally worked in. This doesn't mean the implicit is always better than the explicit, with no filmmaker more than David Cronenberg pushing the visually categorical into new areas of perceptual possibility. The exploding head near the beginning of Scanners, the gun going into the stomach in Videodrome, the external foetus in Brood, creating vivid explorations of mental states as physical realities. The implicit wouldn't have been useful. But in Polanski's best 'horror' work, in the films that invoke horror even if they aren't always generically within its boundaries (like Knife in the Water, The Tenant and the more obviously horror-oriented Repulsion), he is very good on the insinuating presence of others, and the terrible possibilities in apparently benign environments. Three of the films are as we've noted set in apartments; Knife in the Water on a boat. Polanski often searches out the terror of spaces and species, the horror of home and of the homo sapian. He doesn't need the devilishly exaggerated to produce his nightmares: we believe Rosemary's Baby would have been an even better film without the devilish rape sequence. Many a filmmaker could and has replicated such a sequence because it is easily representational even if it happens to be done here better than by almost anybody else. But there are numerous sequences in Rosemary's Baby that are so formally precise (hence the manipulatively implicit) that one is scared, paranoid, suspicious, without immediately quite knowing why. To achieve this Polanski combines framing more common to art film with the manipulation we expect from thrillers and horror cinema.
We can look at three ways in which the director takes aspects developed by Antonioni, Godard, Bunuel and others to see how Polanski allows them to work in a terror context. Firstly, Polanski acknowledges the importance of the frame, what is on the screen and off the screen. In one scene Guy goes into the bedroom to pick up the phone and rather than following him into the room or cutting to him answering it, the camera remains in the hallway, splitting the image between the door frame that allows us to see into the bedroom but not to see Guy on the phone, and the hall. As a framed shot it is very precise, managing to break the image down into an ever so off-centre triptych with the frame and the bedroom taking up one-third, and the hall wall and another door covering two thirds. It is the sort of precise framing that Antonioni or Godard will hold for an indefinable reason for an often extended period of time. Whether it a shot of the door frame in the apartment in Le Mepris, or a framed shot where we see Monica Vitti looking out the window before making love to Alain Delon in The Eclipse, the filmmakers offer the implicit without the manipulative. When Polanski frames similarly there is a clear directorial purpose. As the camera moves very slowly, almost imperceptibly to the right, so Rosemary enters the shot, walks towards the bedroom and leans against the door frame. The film cuts to Guy talking on the phone and the camera retreats as Rosemary enters the frame again. Conversationally and narratively what we have is Guy getting a role he was turned down for because the actor has gone blind. A terrible piece of news but in itself hardly sinister. What makes it so is Polanski's camera. He takes the empty frame and pushes it into the suspenseful, allowing characters to enter and exit in a manner that builds tension. If Rosemary's Baby is in the tradition of Suspicion and Gaslight, part of a history of film that shows the terror women face in the domestic presence of men they feel don't have their best interests at heart, Polanski manages to convey that terror with ongoing implicit menace.
Numerous other examples in the film come to mind of this portentous framing. It might be a brief moment where Rosemary puts some flowers in the sink; or when we see Rosemary packing a suitcase, with Guy seated on the couch with his back to us looking in her direction. But just as Polanski can frame to create distance; he often frames to emphasise claustrophobia. Fraker talks about the 18mm and the 25 mm lenses used in the film. "I once did an insert with a forty million meter lens in a telephone booth and he said, "Billy it's wrong, it's terrible. Shoot it with the twenty five." (Masters of Light) The scene he refers to is presumably the one where Rosemary asks about her friend who has been taken ill and happens to be in a coma. Polanski and Fraker shoot as if inside the booth themselves with the shot feeling cramped and confined. We see the back of Rosemary's head and the side of her face but have no access to a frontal view. But there is also the scene later in the film in the telephone box that is restrictive too, as the film shows Rosemary on the phone trying to persuade the doctor she trusts, Dr Hill, to see her. This isn't the partiality we have talked about earlier that generates suspicion: Polanski holds to a tight shot that plays up Rosemary's paranoiac isolation rather than her solitude or loneliness. A longer lens and a more distanced view might have worked perfectly to register the latter, but Polanski has often been a director interested not so much in loneliness but the states it can induce. Carol in Repulsion and Trelkovsky in The Tenant are lonely, but how to push that into paranoiac isolation and find the right approach to filming it? When we see Rosemary in the telephone booth there is nothing either side of her in the frame as Polanski hems her in all the better to emphasise her feeling that people are out to get her. It also means, because of the lens length, when someone comes towards the booth while Rosemary is standing in it, the person appears much more to intrude on her because the woman doesn't come into focus until she is very close to the box. Whether it is utilising the tightness of the frame or the length of the lens, Polanski finds the visual means with which to make real Sartre's famous claim about hell being other people. As Terrence Rafferty says in a piece on the director ''Rosemary's Baby seems less a lurid shocker than a kind of boldly stylized existential fable: Hell really is other people, especially when they are people determined to impose themselves on weaker creatures." (New York Times)
But Polanksi can also make cuisine look pretty hellish too. Anyone who recalls the meal in front of Carol early on in Repulsion knows how off-putting and even threatening Polanski can make a plate of food, and he does it again here when the camera offers a close up of a plate of meat and vegetables and we watch as Rosemary tries to cut the tough cooked flesh before giving up. Earlier in the film, we see a close up of a succulent roast that nevertheless Polanski manages to film in a manner that suggests a vegetarian's eye. Later on, we see Rosemary put a raw steak into a frying pan and then afterwards watch her eat it off a plate devoid of vegetables. Yet it isn't only meat that looks terrifying; objects themselves often take on this role without any moral dimension that could be extracted from the material. Think of the crimson red roses someone brings to Guy and Rosemary's party; they are offered several times to the camera; in one shot monstrously large in the frame as Rosemary looks for somewhere to put the bouquet. The symbolically inclined may wish to see in these flowers associations with motherhood and virtue but that is not at all how Polanski frames them. The close up so often in Polanski's work isn't an opportunity for symbolic abstraction but concrete fear. It is the proximity of the object to the lens rather than especially what that object means. The symbolic import of meat (the way it may bond a group) or flowers (as a gesture of kindness) in Polanski's hands becomes de-familiarizing rather than over-familiarizing. Rather than playing up the double meaning that generates a pleonastic familiarity where roses, for example, are a flower we find in a garden and also a rose we buy to show our love, Polanski refuses such familiarization as if turning the symbol against itself by adopting shot choices that bring out its potential unfamiliarity. If all objects are both familiar and symbolic, in semiotic terms both denotative (literal) and connotative (abstract), then equally an artist can find a way to turn the word or the image against itself, an aspect not unfamiliar to horror cinema of course as benign objects often become menacing (the countryside, the lake, the log cabin). But with many a horror filmmaker this turning a thing against itself can also turn the thing into a trope and even a cliche. We expect someone to go out to the countryside and get terrorized or killed in the lake or the log cabin. It loses its defamiliarizing potential and becomes a familiar expectation. Polanski wants to give objects that defamiliarity without turning them into expectations on our part, and the monstrous close-up is central to it. What makes Polanski closer to Antonioni or Godard rather than a hack horror director is his need to replenish the image, to find the means by which to generate unfamiliarity.
The third and final aspect rests in the way he films people. Godard and Antonioni are both great directors of bodily partiality. They often show us the body from an angle that surprises us, confuses us or baffles us. It might be the way (in Vivre sa Vie) Godard shoots a discussion between two people not as a shot counter shot but from behind the head of one character so that the face of the other is blocked while we don't see either person's face until the camera later curves round to show us Anna Karina's visage. It could be in Le Mepris when Godard shows Michel Piccoli on the phone. He is in the bedroom; the camera is in the sitting room, and we have the doorframes of the bedroom and the sitting room creating a partial perspective when we see only part of Paul's body within the shot. In Antonioni's work, we can think of the famous empty shots near the end of The Eclipse (when neither leading character turns up for the rendezvous), or early in the film when we see Monica Vitti seen from the back speaking to the lover she will break up with, Francesco Rabal, who has his back to her. Here we have neither person's face but while such shots for Godard and Antonioni generate a new form, Polanski sees such opportunities in framing as offering new approaches to tension and suspense. He was never as innovative a director as either of the modernist masters, but if his cinematographers could so praise him ("I think that Polanski is a cinematic genius" Fraker claims) it partly rested on Polanski knowing exactly what he wanted and why. In Godard and Antonioni's work such assertive meaning is resisted, evident in Antonioni's claim that "I confess that I don't have a very clear idea about subject matter." (The Architecture of Vision) Polanski, whether making a horror film like Rosemary's Baby, a noir like Chinatown or a period drama like Tess, does. He makes clear he knows exactly where he wants to put the camera and why. Hence the body in a shot isn't a reaction to the norm or a determined attempt to find a new type of meaning out of the form, as we find in Godard and Antonioni, where the behaviour retains an aspect of the inexplicable. Their characters do not go mad, in common parlance, as Carol and Trelkovsky do or become (justifiably) paranoid as Rosemary does here. Thus while we don't agree with those who claim Polanski's form is straightforward and conventional, we do believe that any deviation of formal norms serve nevertheless a much clearer content than the great Modernist filmmakers. Hence, when Lucy Fischer in Cinema Journal claims that "with the exception of the dream/hallucination sequences, the work is crafted with conventional cinematic verisimilitude: long-shot, long-take format, standard lenses, location shooting, continuity editing..." ('Birth Traumas') she is missing out on just how Polanski occupies a space between the conventional and the radical, fails to see just how important a horror director Polanski happened to be. He manages to stay within the generic but at the same time expands its possibilities through the absorption of Modernist filmic developments.
If finally Rosemary's Baby is of its time cinematically, in the sense that it understood and utilised the innovations in European cinema of the sixties, then many will claim it is no less so in its subject matter, and hence to its possible misogyny that we mentioned very briefly at the beginning of the essay. "I thus align myself with film scholars like Paul Wells who claim that we cannot understand what is horrifying about a horror movie without understanding the contemporaneous fears and concerns that penetrated both its production and the viewing public who first screened it, however unconscious the correspondence." So says A. Robin Hoffman in one of a number of pieces ('How to See the Horror') that draw upon the sociological and emphasises the notion that Rosemary's Baby coincided with various discourses on feminism and fetus rights, and no article more impressively than Karyn Valerius's 'Rosemary's Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects'. Yet interestingly Valerius doesn't see the film as misogynistic at all; instead, believing "the story establishes a climate of fear and danger by invoking the coercive and sometimes deadly reality created by a conservative sexual morality in combination with a criminalization of abortion where infanticide, suicide and back alley abortions were the last resort of desperate women." We can imagine the film as a thought experiment to indicate the liberal perspective it can appear to adopt: imagine you have been impregnated by the devil, would you feel you have the right to abort? Even the Christian right may have to accept that abortion is the lesser of two evils when it comes to the devilish alternative. Yet at the same time the film concludes by suggesting that when a mother is confronted by her child that no matter how the child was conceived, whatever the circumstances of its creation, Rosemary is after all the child's mother, with the film indicating that the maternal feeling is coming up even in the most horrific of circumstances. If the film isn't misogynistic, some could easily enough claim it is conservative. Does the ending not propose that if Rosemary can give birth to the devil's baby and still feel a proud mother, then this is the worst-case scenario that still leads to a mother's love? Surely next to that (the father of the child you don't love, financial pressure, a career you wish to protect, a youth one doesn't want destroyed and numerous other reasons), one's decision to abort could seem negligible. The thought experiment analogy has its dangers. Better instead to see for all Polanski's assertion in technique an ambiguity in its thematic meaning. Polanski went so far as to propose that the film could be read as a figment of Rosemary's imagination, which has its own ideological problems too: it is a bit like a gaslighting film which indicates it is all just a product of a nervously fraught woman's imagination, a problem Hitchcock never quite managed to resolve when everything in Suspicion indicated Grant was trying to kill Joan Fontaine only for the film to conclude on the fact that he wasn't. "I'm not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends" (Hitchcock), Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut. He wanted an assertively unhappy ending where Fontaine dies and Grant thinks he has got away with it, only to post the letter that Fontaine has written to her mother incriminating him after he has poisoned her. The producers, of course, wouldn't have it.
Polanski is happy for Rosemary's Baby to be read either way: for those who care to believe in the supernatural, Rosemary has been raped by the devil; for those who don't Rosemary has put together a series of coincidences that are merely that. "That is why a thread of deliberate ambiguity runs through the film. The witches' Sabbath and Rosemary's possession by the Devil could have been a nightmare, Gus might have scratched her while making love; the series of accidents could have been merely coincidences." (Polanski). Polanski's take works alongside Varelius's (hence the ambiguous) but to read it one way or another nevertheless leaves the ideology of that reading to be countenanced. If one insists that it is all in Rosemary's head, the supernatural is resolved but the misogyny returns. "To attribute Rosemary's fears and suspicions to psychosis" Valerius notes, "is to refuse a political interpretation of the narrative by failing to recognize the sexist social relations that conspire against her." ('Rosemary's Baby, Gothic Pregnancy and Fetal Subjects') If the thought experiment creates problems, then an ambiguity that allows us to read the film as a product of Rosemary's imagination has problems too. Both can lend themselves to conservative readings.
For our purposes, we don't wish to read the film as misogynistic or feminist, but to accept that Polanski allows the viewer to have it both ways without allowing for an ambiguity that is at all epistemologically problematic even it may be ideologically so. Polanski doesn't assert his message but he does assert his meaning. We may not know for sure whether Rosemary's has been allowing her imagination to run riot or whether her husband has colluded with the devil, but we certainly feel categorically her sense of bewilderment, fear and distrust. When Rosemary waits in the telephone box for Dr Hill's call, when he turns her out of the office when her husband, her regular doctor Saperstein and others come and pick her up, if we are properly unsure of whether it is in her head or in the world impacts on how we are affected by the scene. If the viewer thinks that after Hill turns her over that they hope Rosemary will now see sense is working against the grain of the film's affectivity. Polanski might wish for an ambiguity that satisfies his own rational view of the world, but if the film works it is chiefly because it asks us to go with the irrational one. If he wanted proper ambiguity he would be in danger of weakening the affect a 'weakening' vital to the work of many a modernist filmmaker who wishes to generate an ambivalence of feeling in the viewer and even in the character. We have insisted on Polanski's implicit manipulation and proper ambiguity would undermine it. In Le Mepris we can't say for sure that Paul pimps his wife to Prokasch because the film offers an ellipsis that undermines that certainty. In L'avventura we don't know whether Anna has committed suicide, been murdered, or fallen into the sea by accident. All we know is that she has gone missing. Certainly in Polanksi's work ambiguity and madness are important, especially in Repulsion and The Tenant, but he is also a much more affectively categorical filmmaker than Godard and Antonioni, Jancso and Bunuel. Any ambiguity we find in the work doesn't impact on Rosemary's Baby as a fundamentally effective and affective horror film, one that works very well as it insists on its two-pronged attack on the body and the mind of its heroine. Polanski masters the manipulatively implicit better than most and if Craven suggests that filmmakers should stop looking at films and make better ones themselves, we might suggest that directors stop looking at bad films and instead look at better ones. There aren't many in the horror genre better than Polanski's.
© Tony McKibbin