Rosemary’s Baby: Cinematic Gestation of Trauma – Part Two
By, Kristin Grady
Understanding all of the symbolism in a film like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is impossible, unless you’re Roman Polanski. There may even be subliminal projections he doesn’t realize are there. By analyzing still frames, we begin to see the wealth of allusions that shape the tense moods of the characters, as if they wear the entire scene as a costume. Meticulous composition of shadow, light, set design, and elegant costume coordination all add to the meta-layered subtext of the plot. The following list has been curated to represent Polanski’s visual storytelling style and illuminate subtle hints you may never have noticed before:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse enter the courtyard of their new apartment building, under an arch reminiscent of a concentration camp. The doorman in the foreground appears to goose-step in freeze-frame. The lanterns on the walls represent watching eyes throughout.
Touring the apartment, Rosemary notices someone moved this “secretary” which is too tall to make sense. Anyone would have to stand on something to get into the top drawer. The filigree on the top is reminiscent of horns. One amber-toned lamp peeks out from behind, an eye peeking out at them. It hides a door to a closet that hides a secret door to the neighboring apartment.
The window to the right yellow represents happiness and hope. The window to the right of center is clear, and left of center is foggy. While watching any Polanski film, be aware of the character’s point of view. Chinatown (1974) is all from Jake’s POV. From Guy’s POV, we see the lights of tall buildings, like imposing, many-eyed shadowy figures. He’s turned away from Rosemary, hiding something. Rosemary sees him shrouded in a fog of delusion. She says “Let’s make love”, so he turns off the light and takes off his blue shirt.
Rosemary is very small in the frame, standing like she’s already pregnant, supervising like she’s in charge. She’s wearing Guy’s blue shirt from the previous scene because she wants his authority to make the space her own, but even we look down on her from the working man’s point of view. The yellow under-shirt signifies she’s happy under it all and matching the wallpaper to her inner joy.
Wearing vertical stripes almost like a prisoner behind chain link, two sets of eyes staring at her, Rosemary meets Terry, who says the old couple next door “Picked her up off the sidewalk” and gave her a strange smelling amulet to wear. Terry is already in a cage and Rosemary is just outside it.
The old couple from next door, Minnie and Roman Castevet, stroll home after midnight, in brightly colored clothes, surrounded by watching eyes from the darkness and long shadows. A Volkswagen Beetle (created by Nazis) is in the foreground. Terry just committed suicide by jumping from their 7th floor apartment… onto the sidewalk.
Minnie Castevet starts to visit Rosemary and gives her a smelly amulet like Terry’s, for good luck. This is the only peephole shot in a very paranoid movie. It feels safer with Minnie on the other side of the door.
Rosemary, a grown woman, is constantly infantilized.
Dinner at the Castevets’- Rosemary wears a dress with a nun’s collar, which makes her look like a little girl.
Minnie and Roman ply Guy with complements about his acting and some red cherry-topped cake. Minnie’s rings and the lamps behind Roman’s head represent appraising eyes. Roman seems to be holding the flame of the candle in his open hand, offering it to Guy.
Is that the face of a man excited about making a baby? There are fake flowers next to Guy, in the center of the frame. The roses represent a disingenuous gift full of secrets.
Minnie sneaks drugs into Rosemary’s chocolate mousse. In her red baby-making outfit, a round lantern hangs above her head like a halo about to descend. The closest thing to us in the frame is the shadow of the doorknob, which forms a half-erect phallic shape, foreshadowing the impending rape.
A rose covered bed is supposed to be romantic. Instead, it’s a rose-print bare mattress, which evokes images of drug addiction, poverty, and the terrifying possibility of a surface so prepared for a mess.
The morning after, Rosemary sees evidence of the brutal rape she hoped she dreamed.
No wonder Guy needs Satan’s help to make a break! This is his “Oops, that was me!” face. The dresser is in the mirror, reminding us of the door behind the secretary. He’s smoking a cigarette because he’s anxious. This man admits to raping his wife and brushes it off. Marital rape wasn’t considered much of a thing in 1968, this scene sheds light on the issue and makes the rapist the bad guy. Progressive for the time.
Rosemary feels the post-traumatic stress from the rape. Again, she is small in the frame and the “halo” from the previous scene is off, representing her loss of power. A yellow trash can sits right behind her, all the happy intentions now full of garbage. From the audience POV, we watch from what is to become the nursery, hiding in the shadows as if we’re not supposed to see this. There’s a voyeuristic (and sympathetic) need to watch that somehow feels wrong.
The statue behind Rosemary casts a shadow smaller than itself. This shadow is a conscious cinematography choice, as the sunlight from the window would not have cast such a clearly defined shape. Rosemary feels removed from herself, powerless, as she confronts Guy, showing she’s stronger than she feels.
Rosemary gets the call from the doctor confirming she’s pregnant. She’s wearing the same dress she wore to dinner with the Castevets’. The lamp and painting on the wall in front of her form the breast and belly of a pregnant woman in profile. The breast is green, like new growth. The round lamp is reminiscent of the lamp above her head in the pre-rape scene. The light is off because her power has been taken away.
Rosemary tells Guy she’s pregnant. A green oven mitt in front of her face is an open hand toward him. Two copper pans are turned towards her, like he sees her with pennies in his eyes, as his ticket to wealth and success. Also, the copper “coins” are almost over her eyes like she’s dead and waiting to cross the river Styx.
Guy practices his part for a play (that he got because someone else was mysteriously injured). “I’m a hopeless cripple!” He says in character. A headless, limbless statue is in the corner, in front of a chessboard. He feels crippled while attempting to participate a game he doesn’t have the ability to play. Polanski must have felt like a cripple from the effects of his childhood trauma, but he could only express that through characters like Guy, once removed from his own character.
Half in shadow, timid Rosemary shows off her short haircut, wearing a trench coat like a detective, and holding a protective fist over her newly pregnant belly. Victims of sexual assault often get their hair cut short because it’s safer (long hair is easier to grab). Roman Polanski’s pregnant mother was murdered at Auschwitz, this is perhaps a projection of that memory. Concentration camp victims had their heads shaved to stuff pillows. A hopeful yellow light is to the left of the frame, ominous shadows peek out from the right.
Her friend Hutch is alarmed by Rosemary’s appearance. Watchful lantern eyes peer down at them. Rosemary looks sick. Her cheeks are hollow, she’s pale and weak looking.
Rosemary gazes at a Christmas store window depicting the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne, nursing the Christ child. She’s surrounded by animals, rather than a nativity scene. A goat or sheep is over the reflection of Rosemary’s face. A goat could represent Satan as if she’s marked by the devil and a sheep could represent Christianity. A red eye stares at her from the center of the gold star. Rosemary’s Baby was written as an inversion of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic-raised Rosemary unconsciously identifies with Mary.
Doubled over in pain, Rosemary suffers while wearing a blue nightgown like the Virgin Mary’s. The malformed statue behind her appears to be using an invisible whip to flog her, as she’s bent over like Christ during the scourging. Her sweater is brown, almost a dark red like blood from spotting. She also seems to be worshiping the TV.
Rosemary catches her reflection in the toaster as she eats raw chicken livers with her bare fingers. The illusion of normalcy dissolved. Her reflection in the toaster is distorted because she no longer recognizes herself. The red cookbook in the corner says “ways to wonderful food”.
In a happy yellow dress, Rosemary packs for the “hospital” three weeks early. One eye appears to peek at them from the window. Both Rosemary and Guy are on the same level in the shot, signifying their equalizing power. Although Rosemary is still smaller in the frame, she’s getting closer to regaining her power.
Rosemary reads the book as Guy’s hand appears like God’s in the Sistine chapel. The painting depicts Adam lazily reaching out to God’s outstretched finger. Rosemary represents Eve, turning away from God in favor of knowledge, again an inversion of a biblical story. Guy’s hand is condemning rather than enlightening, as Eve was condemned for eating the apple. Off center of the frame, Rosemary is wearing her wedding ring, which we saw taken off her finger before the rape. Guy appears to be pointing towards it, attempting to reinforce his dominance over her as her husband.
Guy takes the book and hides it on a high shelf like a cookie jar on a refrigerator, again infantilizing Rosemary.
The book is on top of Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male/Female” and next to “Yes I can” by Sammy Davis Jr.
Rosemary is drugged by pills prescribed by the doctor. Polanski made Mia Farrow walk through real NYC traffic for this shot, which was taken by him, holding a handheld camera, because everyone else was too afraid to do it…
A red car almost hits Rosemary and she decides to take her “good luck” amulet off.
Insane as it is to endanger the safety of an actor for a shot, look at the people in the background! Did they just see a pregnant woman wander through traffic or did they see that with a director filming her too? Rosemary drops the necklace in the storm grate.
Two pairs of yellow eyes watch Rosemary as she attempts to escape with a suitcase, like a child running away. She is small in the frame again, but she’s closer to us, fearlessly heading towards the unknown, taking her power back.
This is Rosemary’s reaction to Dr. Hill believing her story about a coven of witches trying to steal her baby. Rape victims want to be believed. Victims of gaslighting need their reality confirmed because their perception has been warped by psychological abuse. Pregnant women, especially pre-women’s liberation, were especially disbelieved for a plethora of issues. Rosemary’s story makes her sound like a paranoid schizophrenic, even though we know what she says is true. From the perspective of Dr. Hill, he sees a woman in desperate need of help. A modern doctor, knowledgeable about assisting victims of domestic abuse, would never do what he did next…
While taking a nap at Dr. Hill’s insistence, Rosemary dreams about holding a perfect little baby, probably somewhere in California. Polanski envisioned a happily ever after with Sharon Tate like this.
Dr. Sapirstein and Guy show up and tell Rosemary to go with them. Rosemary’s head is aligned with the Dr’s genitals, Guy is hiding in the shadows, deeply ashamed that he sold his wife’s uterus to Satan for a shot on Broadway. His hand represents his limp manhood and his loss of power to the cult.
Rosemary knows there’s more than one way into the apartment, which means someone could be hiding her baby. Before investigating, she hides from Guy in the empty nursery and stops the empty cradle from rocking with a knife. The fake baby represents the trickery used against her and the knife her intention to fix the situation. The next time she stops a cradle from rocking, her perspective has been radically changed.
Finally the tallest in the frame, the most powerful in the scene, Rosemary discovers her child. The center pole holding up the black drape over the cradle is shaped like the grim reaper’s scythe, and the flowing black fabric makes you think of his robes. In close-up, we see a silver upside-down crucifix hanging over the cradle like a mobile, representing satanism, a reversal of Christianity, and Lucifer’s fall from heaven.
Rosemary sees her baby for the first time. The first frame shows her face in shadow, the last in the light because the veil has been removed from her eyes. Her reaction, the way she holds the knife up as if to protect herself, and he horror she expresses… all paint a much more terrifying picture in our imaginations than could exist on a screen.
Guy hides in the doorway again, ashamed for Rosemary to find out he set her up to be raped by Satan. A chair resembling a ladder is in front of him, meaning he used her to climb up in social status. Minnie is in the middle of Guy and Rosemary, as she has been for most of the movie. A green, Pentecost-like flame is over her head, showing her fanatical devotion to Satan. “He chose you!” Says Minnie, as if Rosemary should be grateful. The similarities to the Virgin Mary really click into place. Almost as if Mary was raped by God… Well, she certainly didn’t give consent.
Guy: “Everything’s going to be roses from now on.” Right after this, Rosemary spits in Guy’s face as every woman watching involuntarily growls from the depths of her uterus: “Fuck you, Guy!” He appears to grovel in front of her. A white light is trained on Rosemary’s eyes, focusing on the the mix of hurt, betrayal, and disgust that just replaced any traces of love she had for him.
This ending is somehow more satisfying rather than if Rosemary had walked away from her baby. She wanted a baby for the entire movie and her greatest fear was someone taking it away. Even though it was conceived through a satanic rape conspiracy, Rosemary sees herself in the devil baby. Rosemary’s Baby is a metaphor for Polanski selling out to Hollywood. He sees himself as Rosemary, giving birth to a half-devil baby and loving it anyway.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!