When Roman Polanski’s first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, made its way onto the silver screen in 1968, the country itself was in a mass of political and social turmoil.
This era of unrest did not exclude Hollywood. Driven by the growing youth counterculture that made a calling card out of outspoken defiance of the order and reason of the previous generation, Hollywood fell into a broody period characterized by shocking subject matter and almost avant-garde formal and stylistic elements.
The American New Wave was conceived as a film movement reacting to the social unrest of the up-and-coming generation of Baby Boomers. The country was in many ways still roiling in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination and mass paranoia was proliferating.
The Vietnam War was an issue festering beneath the surface of many youth gatherings and protests, several of which ended in violence and brutality. Corrupt politicians were popping up left and right. Feminist and African American civil rights movements were beginning in earnest, hopingly fighting for a future of equality and respect.
The new generation itself was creating unrest within the households and communities of America with its radical behavior and ideals. New ideas of sexual expression and experimentation were blooming among youths. These behaviors were further encouraged by increased drug use and the availability of contraception after the 1960 introduction of “the pill”. A harsh “don’t trust anyone over 30” sentiment formed amongst this younger generation and open defiance of elders became a norm.
The disrespect and rebelliousness of the Baby Boomers created a generation gap that many older citizens blamed on the disintegration of family values and Christian ideals.
The religion itself even seemed to be under attack as a hysteria spread about the collapse of Christianity under growing Satanist ideals. The older and more conservative generation often connected the activities of the youth counterculture with such ideals, blaming the lessening of religious morals for their behavior, as well as for the corruption of the country as a whole.
This new American film movement was also inspired and influenced by the spread of European New Wave practices, specifically the French New Wave of the 1960s and early 1970s. Acting as a mirror to the cinematic and social unease in their respective countries, the European New Wave movements ushered in a period of experimentalism and minimalism not seen before in cinema.
Relishing in the ambiguous nature of human characters and the unpredictable fashion of everyday life, European New Waves made a statement with their unique cinematography and mise-en-scene styles. Although it would never go to the lengths of its counterparts, the American New Wave, led by a new crop of young directors and the deterioration of the production code, would emulate this experimental style to correspond with its reflection of social restlessness.
Rosemary’s Baby stands alone in the American New Wave movement as a film that insinuates America’s social upheaval rather than explicitly showing it to viewers, as seen in films such as The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) and Medium Cool (Wexler, 1969).
The experimental stylistic elements are also more apparent in Rosemary’s Baby than in many other American New Wave films, as it was directed by a well-established European auteur, Roman Polanski. The following points explain why Rosemary’s Baby is one of the purest examples of the American New Wave, melding the style of European movements with clever hints at American unrest, all reflected through Polanski’s foreign lens.
1. Rosemary’s Baby focuses on exceptionally negative subject matter
One of the most apparent traits of the American New Wave was Hollywood’s preoccupation with unhappy and terrifying subject matter, which was greatly a reflection of the country’s disillusionment with the government and the social interactions between the citizenry. The fall of the American Production Code is another important event to mention when discussing the rise of negative subject matter in film.
With the influx of risqué European art films, America’s Production Code, which previously barred exhibition for anything too sexually or thematically graphic, began to appear powerless and obsolete. With the abolition of the Code’s material bans, American filmmakers began experimenting with subject matter in a way that aptly reflected the sentiments and social upheaval of the decade.
The American New Wave took advantage of this new freedom, portraying the dimmer and seedier side of American life as a cynical foil to the bright and simplistic representations afforded by earlier cinema. Rosemary’s Baby exemplifies the style of the ANW with its portrayal of subjects such as rape, murder, Satanism and terror alongside the typically happy topic of a new pregnancy.
Rosemary’s Baby introduces Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young married couple, as they enter what they hope will be the location of their swanky new apartment, the Bramford in New York City. The film establishes an aura of ill-intent and uneasiness as the camera swoops across the New York cityscape to settle on a shot of the couple entering the Bramford, leering at them from its high and undetectable vantage point and settling in to record the subsequent horrors to befall Rosemary Woodhouse.
Rosemary, the textbook definition of a perfect wife, quickly makes it her goal to become pregnant and start a family in the Bramford. Guy, focused solely on his career, seems reluctant at first but changes his mind after meeting Minnie and Roman Castavet, the Woodhouses’ elderly and eccentric neighbors.
A romantic evening becomes a pulsating nightmare as Rosemary dreams that she is being raped by Satan as Guy and an assortment of her Bramford acquaintances, including the Castavets, look on. Shortly after this, an overjoyed Rosemary learns that she is pregnant.
This normally joyous announcement sets off a series of increasingly ominous and horrifying occurrences, fueled by Rosemary’s growing paranoia about the motives of those closest to her. As Guy and the Castavets become more controlling of Rosemary’s decisions and behavior, she begins to look into what she believes to be the Castavets’ demonic plot to sacrifice her unborn child to Satan.
Following this realization, Rosemary attempts to escape, but is thwarted by her watchful neighbors and husband. Forced to give birth in the Bramford, Rosemary’s dream-home-turned-prison-cell, our heroine comes to the realization that the Castavets’ plot was never to sacrifice the child, but to worship him as the Antichrist, the spawn of the unholy union of mortal woman and Satan.
Rosemary’s Baby, as a precursor to the surly early 1970s New Hollywood movement of Scorcese and Spielberg, turns a cynical eye on everyday American life, changing the cheerful nature of pregnancy and birth into something ominous and terrifying, and the familiar and comfortable atmosphere of marriage and friendship into an alien landscape of paranoia.
2. Rosemary’s Baby is a commentary on contemporary social issues
In exploring the new frontier of overwhelmingly negative subject matter, Rosemary’s Baby offered a cynical and subtle interpretation of American society in late ‘60s, focusing largely on America’s social unrest. The most apparent issues commented on in the film are the feminist movement, the paranoia over disintegration of religious ideals and the decline of traditional family roles, all of which may have been caused by the others.
Many interpretations of the film suggest that it harbors strong sentiments about the prevalent feminist culture of the 1960s, suggesting that Rosemary’s association with Satan’s child puts her in a position of power and authority, and therefore the reproductive power of women in general places the entire female population in a similar position .
The film can also be interpreted as a blow toward American Christianity, suggested by the juxtaposition of the devil worshiping Roman Castavet and the imposition of Minnie Castavet’s voice over the image of a nun during two of Rosemary’s dream sequences. These interpretations seem to offer support to the progressive causes of the Baby Boomer generation while scoffing at the traditional morals of America’s older generations.
Rosemary’s Baby can also be interpreted in a more conservative and traditional light, siding with the paranoid sentiments of America’s older generations. The heroine’s demonic pregnancy acts as a punishment for Rosemary, who is suggested to have been of the Catholic faith once. In this way, her situation stands as a cautionary tale for the unruly youth counterculture that posed such a threat to traditional religious morals .
Further, the ending of the film suggests that Rosemary has accepted her role as the mother of the Antichrist. This has been construed as the triumph of traditional family roles and the downfall of the feminist movement, despite the youthful sentiment of “free love” and the growing number of single-parent homes . Finally, the “child is the devil” theme supports the older generation’s fears about the youth counterculture and their controversial attitudes toward traditional morals .
3. The film is driven by the ambiguity of its characters and situations
Ambiguity was a major trait of foreign new wave movements of the 1960s, especially the French New Wave. Characters lacked motivation and made decisions in meandering and pointless patterns, like the two lead roles in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).
The anti-hero also became prevalent in new wave cinema, creating an ambivalent feeling for viewers toward specific characters. Resolutions in new wave films were also often unclear, adding to the realism of the film itself, such as the ending of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
As a result of the influence of foreign new wave movements paired with the disillusionment of the American society, Rosemary’s Baby presents an overall atmosphere of ambiguity with regards to its characters and situations.
This trait of American New Wave played off of the paranoia that Americans – specifically older Americans – harbored for the government, the Baby Boomers and one another. This film in particular applied the European New Wave trait of obscurity to distinctly American problems.
Most apparent in Rosemary’s Baby was the lack of surety about Rosemary’s situation. Despite the film focusing painstakingly on her early pregnancy issues and her obsession over her unborn child and the motives of those around her, Rosemary’s symptoms of paranoia and other physical health issues are actually quite typical for pregnant women.
This leads the viewer to question whether any of Rosemary’s fears are justified or if they are just the unfounded paranoid reactions of a scared pregnant woman .
Another major point of ambiguity in Rosemary’s Baby is the film’s ending, in which Rosemary has just been introduced to her demon-spawn child.
The camera settles on Rosemary’s slightly smiling face before drifting toward the open window, evoking the ambiguous ending of Truffaut’s unresolved The 400 Blows, in which the character of Antoine Doinel stares directly at the camera before the film ends. It remains unclear whether or not Rosemary has accepted her role as the monster’s mother, despite the somewhat daydreaming smile that appears on her lips.
4. Rosemary’s Baby reflects the experimental stylistic techniques of foreign new wave movements
Born mostly out of necessity and lack of capital, the French New Wave made aesthetic experimentation one of its most recognizable hallmarks.
Jump cuts, whip-pans and extremely mobile cameras were deemed by many critics to be signs of sloppy filmmaking, but the French New Wave filmmakers used these techniques to reinvigorate the national cinema, disorient the viewer and add a sense of realism to their films. Breaking down the overproduced and glamorous cinema of the pre-1960 film era became a major goal for many filmmakers of the decade.
Roman Polanski, already a well-established director in Europe, imposed some of his radical European style on his first American film, Rosemary’s Baby. During this time period, the gritty realism of American New Wave cinema was shunning the previous notions of highly polished Hollywood cinema for a more experimental and mystifying national style.
Rosemary’s dream sequences provide the richest examples of stylistic experimentation with sound and visual editing. Disorienting volume changes and sound impositions mix with whirling cameras and abrupt set changes to create perplexing scenes that previously were rarely viewed outside of swanky art houses.
The camerawork and framing also provided a refreshing break from traditional styles. Before this decade, it was customary for the camera to sit in a mostly stable position, objectively recording the scenes acted out before it. Tight, frontal, medium shots of the performers were also fairly customary in American cinema. With the introduction of widescreen formatting in the 1950s, experimentation with screen space and framing began to take off.
Polanski integrates deep space composition into Rosemary’s Baby, creating a sense of depth and space while taking attention away from the actors and allowing the apartment itself to act as an individual presence.
Frames occupied by a single figure are common throughout the film, which increases the film’s claustrophobic and isolating effect. An ominously mobile camera lurks after Rosemary throughout the film, acting as an invisible and malicious presence that gives even lighter scenes a threatening bent.
5. However, being a Hollywood film, the style and form are not too radical
Despite acting as a refreshing change from the stark framing and minimal camera movements of previous decades, every aesthetic choice in the film was made to further the story of the atmosphere of a scene. In opposition to the super-radical and sometimes overly-disorienting style of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, Rosemary’s Baby was still a Hollywood film that was meant to be seen, enjoyed and understood by the masses.
The ambiguity and style experimentation acted as a reflection of both American society and the film movements of the world, but the main purpose of the film was to provide comprehensible entertainment for the ticket-buying public.
With the rise of television programming in the 1950s, film distributors and exhibitors began to grasp at anything that may attract the public back to the theaters. Cinerama, Cinemascope, 3D and Smell-O-Vision were all attempts made by the film industry to make themselves more lucrative that the convenience of a home television set.
At the end of their rope, the big producers and distributors looked toward fresh, young directors as their last hope to draw in the massive youth population. Thus, the American New Wave and the New Hollywood movements were born. Given massive artistic freedom, Polanski and other young directors added their own flair and experimental styles to Hollywood’s output.
However, the trappings of a Hollywood filmmaking career were still present. The vast majority of American audiences did not want to pay for the disorientation of Godard and Truffaut. They still wanted a fun and easy-to-follow storyline that continued the legacy of previous decades with characters that were likeable and relatable. Because of this, the American New Wave was also constrained by their audiences’ preferences.
Therefore, although encompassing stylistic experimentations and social commentaries, Roman Polanski created a very successful Hollywood film that appeases the majority of American tastes. The film presented a clear protagonist with a motive and a problem – Rosemary Woodhouse wants to protect her unborn child from whatever satanic evil her husband and neighbors have planned for it.
There are time limits and constraints – Rosemary must figure out the plot and escape before she gives birth. The film is rooted in a specific time period: 1966, to be exact.
Finally, it is composed of easy to understand cause-and-effect editing. The viewer can follow the story from scene to scene, understanding exactly how each character got into each situation.
The only thing missing from this otherwise classical Hollywood film is a clear and tight resolution. This was fairly common in new wave films worldwide, and may have been Polanski’s jab at the simplistic and formulaic tastes of American audiences.
Despite the experimental and innovative nature of the American New Wave, it was still a product of Hollywood demand and Rosemary’s Baby is an all-encompassing symptom of that time period and film movement.
 Berenstein, Rhona. “Mommie Dearest: Aliens, Rosemary’s Baby, and Mothering” in Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 24, Issue 2 (Fall 1990): 55-73.
 Lima, Robert. “The Satanic Rape of Catholicism in Rosemary’s Baby” in Studies in Studies in American Fiction (Boston, MA, 1974): 211-222.
 Fischer, Lucy. “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 31, Issue 3 (Spring 1992): 3-18.
 See Rhona Berenstein article mentioned in footnote 1
 See Lucy Fischer article mentioned in footnote 3
Author Bio: Adrienne is a long time film lover and aspiring film ist based in western Pennsylvania. She is attending the University of Georgia as a magazine journalism and film studies double major.