This week Beyond Fest in Los Angeles showed Roman Polanski's 1968 intellectual horror classic, Rosemary's Baby as part of its month-long screenings. After attending one of the screenings, Michael Wojtas explored Polanski's Apartment Trilogy further, offering scope into its place in cinema history and the horror genre.
Roman Polanski’s monolithic 1968 effort Rosemary’s Baby feels like a crystallization of all the cinema of pessimism and paranoia that came before it. Both a product of the Hollywood studio system’s bygone adventurous era and the work of a filmmaker at an unquestionable peak, it’s arguably the pinnacle of a certain kind of inward-looking, intellectual horror.
Yet the film’s uncanny power is pluralized when it’s taken as the centerpiece of Polanski’s unofficial horror sequence, popularly dubbed “The Apartment Trilogy.” Beginning with the 1965 art house shocker Repulsion and concluding 11 years later with the black-hearted farce The Tenant, the trilogy isn’t a connected series in any literal sense (the grouping being a critical/fan construct that’s gained widespread acceptance). These films share no characters or specific locations. Yet the thematic commonalities between Repulsion, Rosemary and The Tenant –chiefly, neuroses inflamed by confinement, both social and architectural — are strong enough to represent a clear through-line.
Characters obsess over being watched and talked about. They invariably take the sound of muffled voices heard through shared walls to be threats, the beginnings of plots against them. As the cycle continues, the fears explored grow more abstract; in The Tenant, Polanski, playing his own protagonist, is in danger of losing his barely-there personality as he seemingly absorbs the spiritual imprint of the suicidal woman who previously lived in his apartment. The reality Polanski works in from film to film is mutable, and the lines separating what takes place in and outside the minds of his characters are deliberately obscured. But each entry in the trilogy retains an unnervingly plausible strain of psychological realism, even when courting the supernatural. It’s with this cycle that Polanski birthed, nurtured and killed off cerebral modern horror in the span of three films. Remarkably assured for a sophomore feature-length, Repulsion opens as Hitchcock homage, with faux-Saul Bass credits laid over an intense close- up, deep inside an iris belonging to the zombified Carol (Catherine Deneuve). Initially, she seems like the most Hitchcockian of blondes, impossibly remote and almost objectively beautiful. Yet as Polanski’s camera continually sticks close to Deneuve’s perspective, Carol begins to function as a retort to the stereotype of the “icy blonde,” a run of female archetypes Hitchcock purportedly created simply because they photographed well in black and white. Ultimately indefinable as she may be, Carol is a unique, fully formed character rather than a mere tool for torturing the subconscious of brooding men, as are the important women in even the best of Hitch’s films (Vertigo, Rear Window).
Carol’s psychosexual collapse begins banally enough, welling up from the grotesque particulars of the everyday. A construction worker’s Cockney catcall jump cuts into a stomach-wrenching pile of fish and chips, the orgasmic groans of Carol’s sister waft into her room through the decrepit womb of a fireplace and, in one of the film’s most notable hallucinations, the apartment itself sprouts violently groping arms. A skinned rabbit meant for dinner emerges in the first act, and it’s Chekhov’s Gun as a barometer of Carole’s sanity. By the time the third act dawns, it’s headless, fly-ridden and unceremoniously dumped into the trash by a sexual predator. But despite numerous moments of raw, avant- garde ingenuity, the bulk of Repulsion is dominated by careful compositions, considered camera movements and long takes of Carol just existing, unraveling. What other ‘60s horror flick could have predicted Jeanne Dielman?
Repulsion’s final image is another close-up of Carol’s eye, this time in the context of a chilling, grainy family photo from her childhood that raises more questions than it answers. We can’t really diagnose Carol or say with certainty what past traumas befell her, but we come away understanding how the male world sees her, and it’s enough to make us sympathize with her against our better judgment. Whether through force or laughably outmoded forms of courtship, just about every man that enters the frame actually does approach the seemingly passive Carol with sexual aggression. In its own skewed way, Repulsion is unexpectedly sensitive toward its female lead, even before one considers that the auteur helming the film is now equally well known as both a master of suffocating misé- en-scene and a fugitive rapist.
Repulsion gave way to the all-encompassing gloom of Rosemary’s Baby, in which not just wolfish men, but nearly every character, wants to use and abuse the body of Mia Farrow’s waifish Rosemary. Here, with sexual fixations, religious hang-ups and proto-body horror intertwined, Polanski wholly escaped Hitchcock’s shadow. It’s somehow shocking to consider that Rosemary’s Baby came just 8 years after Psycho; a walk-on psychiatrist can’t show up to restore order to a New York City where everyone, doctors included, have willfully handed over their sanity to Satan.
Adapted for the screen by the director himself, the maddeningly perfect script has a glacial sweep that describes Rosemary’s torturously slow-to-dawn realizations about those inhabiting her inner-circle. His manipulation of every on-screen element is comprehensive enough that the film’s scariest moment comes not from bloodshed, but Scrabble letters. There simply is no other horror film with this kind of reach and exactitude; to find something analogous, you’d have to look outside of the genre, to Chinatown, Polanski’s other encyclopedic examination of gradually enveloping perversion.
The film’s foreboding atmosphere is just as overwhelming as its grasp of intellectual terror, and this sense of nameless dread adds a layer of ambiguity to a vision that, in many ways, is callously precise. Consider Rosemary’s dreams, which feel realer than almost any other that have been committed to film because Polanski captures the weight, texture and rhythms of dreaming rather than relying on a parade of Freudian clichés.
To an extent, the film continues the strain of idiosyncratic feminism developed in Repulsion. But Rosemary also flirts with the nihilistic by quietly implicating even Farrow’s character in the occult plot against her. While a proper bourgeois living space was thrust on Repulsion’s Carol, Rosemary actively searches out a larger apartment to fill with children, ignoring her new building’s sordid history. She often seems to be wrestling with her own intelligence, usually shirking it off to appease her coddling husband. At least initially, she doesn’t reject (and barely questions) her closet-Satanist neighbors’ near-constant monitoring, and her complicity is solidified in the film’s famous ending. Rosemary being a perfect embodiment of rapidly fading ‘60s innocence, the film is of course fair game for interpretations revolving around cultural chaos and generation gaps. It’s certainly worth noting that Rosemary’s Baby, in all of it’s God-is-dead doom, arrived in theaters a full six months before Easy Rider, the film typically credited with ushering in the New Hollywood era of ‘70s defeatism. But it can stand as a key document of its era and transcend this association, welcoming innumerable analyses, whether psychological, sociological or spiritual.
Having already crafted a fully formed universe in which not even the most paranoiac mindset can uncover the full extent of evil lurking in hall closets, anagrams and chocolate mousse, Polanski then upended the mental processes of Rosemary’s Baby with The Tenant. Following Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, two masterpieces made, remarkably, under the auspices of Hollywood, Polanski went to Paris for The Tenant, which is scaled back down to the more personal level of Repulsion. In his final chapter of the trilogy, the filmmaker peers directly inward, intimately profiling what happens in the mind of a stranger when his neighbors are too ominously oblivious of him to even plot his destruction.
Initially, the film plays like a male-centric parallel to Rosemary’s Baby, with the emasculation fears and suicidal impulses of Polanski’s terminally squirrelly Trelkovsky manifesting in the perceived hostility of neighbors and co-workers. Yet, throughout The Tenant, self-effacing slapstick and cringingly funny social sleights linger around the corners of scenes, eventually becoming the film’s central theme. Trelkovsky is a veritable black hole of non-charisma, the primary machinations working against him merely the byproducts of his own fumbling existence. The brilliance of The Tenant lies in the way that Trelkovsky’s psychotic descent is minutely detailed to the point that it’s not only feasible, but somehow even relatable, as if fleeing from the caresses of Isabelle Adjani in order to slap around the children of strangers is a totally valid response to daily stress. The film’s final scene, which mysteriously plays on Trelkovsky’s fears about his own identity, reconstructs all that has become before it into an absurd new geometry of disassociating strangeness, expressing a final, haunting accusation: There are no overarching conspiracies that would choose any one of us as their center, just a tacit agreement the world makes with itself to dismiss the notion we even exist. It’s a dismal enough reality to make rape at the hands of the devil seem like a preferable fate.
Polanski largely left horror behind after exiting The Tenant with what could be the genre’s most painfully protracted and least dignified suicide attempt (the height Trelkovsky leaps from being so negligible, even two jumps don’t do the job). Aside from the end of Polanski’s trilogy, 1976 would see Brian De Palma break into the mainstream with the more stylized, post-modern horror of Carrie, while newcomer John Carpenter showed up with Assault on Precinct 13, radically splicing genres, revitalizing classic craftsmanship and a offering a big “Fuck You” to introspective horror. In the ensuing decade, David Cronenberg would literalize the idea of the human body as a space of confinement, a fear lurking under the surfaces of each film in the Apartment Trilogy (Carol entrapped by her own beauty, Rosemary by pregnancy and Trelkovsky by his physical insignificance). But, having knifed as deeply into the neurons of modernity as possible, Polanski himself simply opted out, leaving in his wake a map of the psyche’s terrain that’s all fissures.