Thursday, August 20, 2015

Theory Thursday: "Repulsion" is Better Than "Rosemary's Baby"

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Roman Polanski's birthday
Theory: Repulsion (1965) is better than Rosemary's Baby (1968)

By this point, we all have our own opinions about the long, tragic storied career of director Roman Polanski. With his bleak style of film making and a personal life that is highly controversial, it is a wonder that his films aren't more depressing. Considering that he has done solid work of adapting stage plays to film, most recently with Carnage and Venus in Furs, there's no argument that he has tapered off in quality. He even won Best Director for The Pianist - which sadly remains his only Oscar win to date. While the argument could be made that he should have won for Chinatown (his best film period), I am here to argue for something more relative to the films he made before 1974. I'm talking about the era when he was still the dark director who enjoyed making horror films that psychologically messed with our heads. I'm talking, of course, about Rosemary's Baby

A lot can be made of Rosemary's Baby. It was his American debut and one that struck a nerve with audiences. The titular Rosemary (Mia Farrow) becomes impregnated by the devil and gives birth to the demon baby. It was in an era when possession movies were highly popular, including later titles like The Exorcist and The Omen. However, it remains among many people's favorite horror films in general. It is quite unnerving at points and definitely deserves some of the acclaim that it has received. However, I personally think that Polanski's scarier and arguably better films are even further back than Rosemary's Baby. For all of the effort the film did to launch his career, you have to go to Repulsion to understand his true madness.

Repulsion was Polanski's first English language film and starred Catherine Deneuve as Carol: a woman who is very neurotic to the point of biting her nails. The film follows her into a slow decline of mental health to the point that she loses her sanity. Among the film's achievements is being one of the rare psychological thrillers to have a violent female antagonist. Without spoiling much, the film dives heavily into Carol's psyche to the point that the film enters a surrealism that would be later adapted in films like Barton Fink. The walls begin to take on horrifying symbolism as hands poke through them and try to attack Carol. It is all visually stimulating and grabs you. Even the ominous exterior sounds as Carol walks down the street add a tension to it that Polanski hasn't replicated since. Much like his previous thriller Knife in the Water, it is a film that shows a director who has a dark conscience and ventilates through film. 

There's an apples and oranges comparison to make here. Both are tonally similar films that focus on women's grasp of sanity. One is more visual (Repulsion) while the other is mental (Rosemary's Baby). However, there is something more deliberate in the structure that has always bugged me about Rosemary's Baby that keeps the horror from ever really landing for me. While Mia Farrow delivers an excellent performance, the film feels too insecure with itself to let the scariness of demonic impregnation stand on its own. It has too many scenes of Rosemary trying to find a way out of the situation until it reaches the climax. I understand that the general conceit of rape and unwanted pregnancy are horrifying. Yet there's something in the film that makes it feel too obvious. We know that Rosemary is going to have the baby and we know that things are going to end badly. To be honest, the ending has too much complacency to feel like the tension was warranted. I am aware that as film has progressed, narrative styles have changed and maybe Rosemary's Baby's conclusion is a victim of that. However, it doesn't explain why Repulsion is just better.

Maybe it is just that Deneuve in general has always been a more appealing actress than Farrow. Yet I think it's that Polanski is just more confident as as director with Repulsion. He gives more into his desires with the film. His direction is more ambitious and he makes the most of every frame. From the opening shot on an eyeball, he creates genuine horror from appearance, asking us to see things through Carol's eyes. The quietness is haunting and the aforementioned walls add another layer to the psychology. This is a journey inside one woman's mind, and it is something that doesn't get portrayed well enough. This year saw the film The Voices star Ryan Reynolds as a man who murders because his pets told him to. The issue there was that it lacked a balance in tone and ended up being an uncomfortable mess shifting between reality and idealism. In Repulsion, it is one of the few films to depict insanity in a way that is both abundantly clear and able to transcend reality and idealism. That alone gives it some credit.

Both are from an era where horror was different. It was drawn out and more psychological. Even if both predate the unfortunate Sharon Tate murders, both have a somber defeated nature that already reflects Polanski's lifelong struggles. He would master it with Chinatown and even make it more personal with The Pianist, but there's something to his early horror films that are compelling. His protagonists don't win. They face a harsh reality, whether it is a broken psyche or a demon baby. I do think that there's merit in a lot of these early Polanski films, and I recommend watching both if you haven't. Even the slower and earlier Knife in the Water shows a lot of promise from a man who can be complimented by the word "dour." 

Yet I think inevitably that Repulsion is the often overlooked masterpiece. Rosemary's Baby is fine, but I feel like the informed protagonist angle deflates its tension just a little. Repulsion is a film that is more challenging both psychologically and visually in ways that make you care about Carol. It is more artistic and while equally slow, it does capture the attitudes of the director more clearly. If for no other reason, I think that Repulsion is just better acting, direction, and production design. It is a film that showed promise for an up and coming director that continued to flourish. And he did, but I don't think that Rosemary's Baby was a step up from this. It may have been good, but I do think that its legacy is a little misconstrued. 

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