Roman Polanski has been called many things, and the term feminist does not surface very often in relation to him. I had seen Rosemary's Baby once in high-school, at a party, but didn't remember anything from it, so decided to watch it again.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story revolves around titular character Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her actor-husband Guy (John Cassavetes) who move into a swanky apartment building in New York City surrounded by kooky, but endearing elderly folks. To make a long (but great) story short, the neighbors are all Satan worshipers who make a deal with Guy that, as payment for launching his professional acting career, Rosemary will be impregnated by Satan in order to bring Adrian (think the satanic version of Jesus) to Earth and bring about a Satanic revolution. The trailer is provided below, but it doesn't really do much for the film.
Apart from the suspense, the superb acting on the part of Farrow, and excellent photography, the film is in itself a vehicle for the story. Polanski apparently thought that film adaptations of novels were supposed to be as accurate to the original text as possible, so this film is in essence a bringing to life of Ira Levin's book. Now, I'll admit to having never read Levin's novel, so I'll speak only to what I got out of the film version.
Rosemary is a waifish, innocent looking character whose docility not only sets her up as the perfect victim for the film but portrays her as the ideal domestic woman of late-mid 20th century America. Despite her frail appearance though, I found her to be a strong woman, especially in her ultimately futile attempts at the end of the movie to defy the controlling men in her life and escape with her child. For me, the film was never about light and dark or good versus evil but rather about the battle that is constantly being waged over the female body.
Body invasion is a common theme in horror and science fiction films. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and even new films such as District 9 and 28 Days Later all hinge on human fears of bodily invasion and impregnation. In all of these films the source of invasion is otherwordly and victims are chosen randomly. Rosemary's Baby departs from these in that Rosemary is chosen specifically, by fellow humans, as a sacrifice. Whereas in other body-invasion films, the victims are hosts of a disease or alien form, Rosemary is picked as a host to serve her fellow humans. In essence, her body becomes a public domain.
The satanic copulation scene and Rosemary's discovery of her child serve as bookends to the film, somewhat diminishing their overall importance. The saga of her pregnancy and the battle over Rosemary's body makes up the majority of the movie. Rosemary is consistently forced to relinquish control over her body to other characters throughout her pregnancy. Her favored obstetrician is fired in favor of a new (Satan-worshipping) doctor, when she wants to take medicine for the pain that her satan-baby is creating the neighbors force her to drink a milky-concoction, and her pain is not only ignored by her doctor and husband, but is actually refuted. Even her haircut is controlled by her husband, who upon seeing her Vidal Sassoon haircut partway through the film, becomes angry at the un-permitted change to her appearance.
In fact, men do the majority of the prescribing for Rosemary throughout the film. Trips to the doctor only result in chastisement, and her husband becomes angry at her for any complaints about pain. Despite her first-hand knowledge of the changes in her body, her experiences are diminished by characters who not only can't understand what she's going through, but couldn't even have the opportunity to experience them. I saw this as a direct political statement on government interference with women's rights as it pertains to their bodies. Roe v. Wade, although not yet a concept entered into the political lexicon would soon become a huge court case. The U.S. government and supreme court had been waging war over contraception, and socially the idea of women's reproductive rights were (and still are) a contentious issue.
The evil-smoothie creation of the Woodhouse's neighbors is another critique of the corporate world's battle over women's bodies. The neighbor assures Rosemary that the coctail is entirely "natural" as opposed to the medicine she would recieve otherwise. This struck me as a clever way of referencing the multitude of pregnancy related products advertised to women. Also, it is not just in pregnancy that products aimed at women rely on distortions of body image and use the body as a tool for manipulation.
The scene of Rosemary's rape by Satan is uncomfortable (as it should be) and casts all sorts of religious allusion (some of which I'll get to later). One of the most striking parts about this scene is her emergence from sleep afterwards. She finds scratches all over her side and back from the claws of the Devil.
Although I wrote about the lesser importance of the end of the film (maybe originally the end would have provided a surprise, but anyone who gets to the end now and doesn't know what's coming must be living under a rock) it provides simultanously the most poignant and ironic moment of the movie.
By creating this image of Rosemary and her baby as the Madonna, Polanski points out that the precendent for the battle over women's bodies is in fact biblical. He forces us to consider whether the impregnation of Mary, with Joseph as witness, is any different than Rosemary's impregnation at the hands of the Devil. A loaded topic, absolutely, but interesting nonetheless. I don't know that Polanski intended to make a statement either way in this issue, but I do sense an intentional exposure to the concept that we have a biblical reference to support the fight over women's bodies. Writers and filmmakers don't always need to come down on any side of an argument, but here I believe Polanski is pointing out that the greatest mother figure of all may have faced similar conflict, and that her story set the stage for future male domination over the female body.
I think Rosemary's Baby is one of the greatest and most important films of all time for the above reasons. The argument about whether or not the movie is a feminist film probably misses the point and in the end doesn't matter very much, but as a feminist, I found the movie an ingenous allegory for women's issues in the 20th and 21st century, and found his critique on religion both frightening and thought-provoking.