Roman Polanski would probably be the last place you'd look to find meaningful reflections about women in modern society. In 1977 Polanski pled guilty to "unlawful intercourse" with a drugged 13-year-old, Samantha Geimer. The director of some of the most important films of the last five decades fled the United States shortly thereafter and has taken asylum in France ever since.
Speaking with reporters at Cannes in May of this year, Polanski pondered romance. Or at least the decline of it. "The pill has changed greatly the women of our times, masculinizes her," the 79-year-old director claimed, adding "it chases away the romance from our lives."
Polanski went on to sputter something about how trying to level genders was "idiotic," that he was something of a Marxist and "it's [presumably access to birth control?] a result of progress in medicine and everything else."
I have three observations. First, it's my experience that some women who use birth control don't mind the occasional bouquet, some even like candy too. Second, Roman Polanski is a near pitch-perfect filmmaker, an unrepentant rapist and also an idiot. Finally, how did this man manage to adapt and direct Rosemary's Baby, a darkly subversive film about women's health and feminism ever made?
The answer has to do both with the film's times and its source material. Rosemary's Baby, arguably Polanski's masterpiece, appeared in 1968. Based on Ira Levin's eponymous best-selling novel from the year before, the film starred Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young ambitious couple eager to move into the just-a-bit- beyond-their-means upper west side apartment.
Their new, mostly elderly neighbors are, we learn, part of a witch's coven that entangles Guy in their plan to have Rosemary bear Satan's son. Guy himself enters the coven and makes a pact that opens doors of success for his previously stalled acting career. Helping to drug his own wife, Guy allows her to be raped by a demonic force. When she wakes up the next morning, her naked body scratched and lacerated, he makes a joke about "not wanting to miss the night."
This all seems like B-movie stuff and indeed part of the genius of the film was to take grindhouse fare and serve it up to mainstream audiences in what sometimes feels like an art film. The cinematography draws you in completely to this late 60s world and the script, deeply faithful to the novel, contains a hundred memorable lines. In the dialogue, the quotidian mixes with the histrionic, not unlike everyday speech. Talk of a witch's conspiracy seamlessly intertwines with Guy crowing over buying the shirt he saw in the New Yorker.
I have seen Rosemary's Baby something like 17 times. This is not because it's a great film but because I watch it with my college students every semester in my "Devil in the Western World" course. It's near the end of this class where we explore several centuries of change and continuity in the concept of Satan.
Every semester, at least a small contingent of the women in my class becomes slightly obsessed with the character of Rosemary. These are women who, for the most part, are white, middle or upper class and aged 19 to 24. Lots of them don't call themselves feminists, but they have inherited all of feminism's victories.
What's the root of their identification with this woman from 1968? Sometimes it's with the mod style of film and of Rosemary herself, the same kind of aesthetic nostalgia that drives our love for the mis-en-scene of Mad Men. But there's something more at work.
Enovid became the first FDA approved birth control pill in 1960. However, as late as 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut proved necessary to end state laws that restricted access to 'the pill." Rosemary's Baby appeared in theatres around the time Pope Paul VI released his infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the Church's traditional position against birth control. A few years later, in 1973, the high court crafted Roe v. Wade. Welcome to the culture wars.
Roman Polanski likely had more liberal views on such matters in the late sixties (although his also brilliant film Repulsion suggests all his latent misogyny). But the way Rosemary's Baby hewed so closely to the themes of the novel explains much of its relevance to the politics of the late sixties and today.
Rosemary's demonic rape provides only the most violent example of how her body becomes imprisoned by the world her husband and malefic neighbors craft for her. At the beginning of the film, she's already locked firmly into a heteronormative marriage, running to Guy with beer and sandwiches when he walks in the door. After the pregnancy, her once beloved apartment has become a cage, her health, weight and hairstyle critiqued and managed. Her attempts to escape fail and, in the fever dream of the dénouement, she becomes bound to the ultimate feminine mystique.
As we discuss the historical context and the political buttons the film pushed more than forty years ago, some of it seems all too contemporary. Whether or not you believe there is a "war on women" in this country (and at the very least I believe there is a war on women's health and reproductive choices), you have to acknowledge that the debate on reproductive rights, and restrictions on the same, continues with a white-hot heat. Say hi, Rick Perry.
And so, the relatively privileged women in my course bristle when Guy makes jokes about sex with his unconscious wife. They are surrounded by a "rape culture" even if they don't use the term. And they are anxious with Rosemary as she systematically loses control over her own body and her own choices because they know that state legislatures all over the country are covening together to take those choices away from them too.
They know that, unfortunately, Polanski's vision of patriarchal romance is actually back in style.