Apartment hunters

Throughout Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s camera pays special attention to the various contours and details of the apartment in which it’s set. This style is similar to that of Repulsion, the first of the so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” (of which Rosemary’s Baby is the second installment, with 1976’s The Tenant representing the third), in that both apartments are sources of isolation and, eventually, imprisonment for the main characters. Both Carol (Repulsion) and Rosemary spend an inordinate amount of time within the walls of their apartments. In the case of Carol, her psychosis keeps her from stepping foot outside; for Rosemary, it’s her uncomfortable pregnancy that keeps her mostly indoors. For both characters, the result is increased paranoia and a distrust of the outside world. Early on, Repulsion makes it clear that the disturbing images we see on screen are Carol’s hallucinations. Accordingly, the apartment follows suit: its rooms inflate and deflate in size, while its walls (when they aren’t busy cracking open for inexplicable reasons) occasionally have human arms burst through them. Carol’s surroundings become decidedly hostile.

Although the story in Rosemary’s Baby is presented as literal, the apartment does take on a number of unique characteristics. For starters, the environment itself feels much more expansive than it does in Repulsion, where the apartment is not only smaller, but Polanski takes extra steps to ensure the audience has a firm grasp of the space, both onscreen and off. There’s less geometric cohesion in Rosemary’s apartment, which evokes a more subtle sense of unease. A less pronounced setting suggests a greater possibility for danger. The fear that stems from unfamiliarity is a tacit theme of the film, and Polanski does a fine job of exploring this thematically as well as physically. It’s a bit of a red herring, then, that Rosemary, who proves adept in recognizing the details of the apartment when she notices the wardrobe has been moved in front of the closet, is the film’s victim. Then again, she also notices paintings have been removed from the Castavets walls: The last time we see their apartment, the paintings once again occupy their space.

Placing Rosemary’s Baby within the horror canon is a tricky task. With its lurid subject matter, the film has the sort of B-film sensibilities that betray its “A” status. The reason it remains something of a middlebrow—if not occasionally highbrow—piece lies in the relative tameness of its imagery. Rosemary’s Baby is not a graphic movie; there are no scenes of explicit sex or violence. Even during the infamous rape scene (an early motif of Polanski’s that, thanks to what would transpire in his personal life, has an added layer of tragedy attached to it), a pair of ghoulish eyes and a pair of not-so-ghoulish arms are the only elements that are obviously horrific. The film is terrifying because of its implications and its emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Acts of betrayal and bouts of guilt effectively replace blood and guts. Even when iconography or scenarios typical of horror films crop up—such as Rosemary’s confrontation of the Satanist’s with a kitchen knife—Polanski continues to subvert audience expectations by having his main character relinquish her anger and give in to the dire sins committed against her. Though it might not seem like it, this ending is a most horrific outcome. Rosemary’s latent Catholicism has rendered her meek, but it’s not the Earth she inherits…

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