Released almost fifty years apart, there’s a multitude of eerie similarities that link Rosemary’s Baby and Mother! together, each to the other a sort of demented twin. As Jennifer Lawrence shrieks in the climactic scene, “MURDERER!” you can’t help but hear a chilling echo of Mia Farrow’s distraught cry, “YOU MANIACS!” – Our protagonists are alone, and all the devils are here.
Exploring intertwining themes of paranoia, femininity, corruption and terror, both films are exceedingly dark and psychologically warped. Auteurs Roman Polanski (hm.) and Darren Arronofsky masterfully imbue peaceful settings with nightmarish imagery, forcing their protagonist’s world’s to spiral from tranquillity into ominous hysteria. Furthermore, they utilise the classic gothic narrative trope of a beautiful, innocent young woman at odds with malevolent forces to produce truly thrilling, though ultimately unique cinematic experiences.
In horror, women are usually depicted as vulnerable, often scantily clad damsels in distress (with a few exceptions along the way). It’s a sad tradition that makes for an uncomfortable and often frustrating viewing experience, particularly in context of today’s cultural climate. However, despite the fact that the protagonists of Rosemary’s Baby and Mother! embody the role of the glamorous, fragile victim, they divert from tradition by fighting back. Initially, both reluctantly submit to the circumstances imposed upon them, but both also have breaking points, spectacularly shattering all previous constraints when maternal instinct triumphantly kicks in. Nonetheless, they remain alienated for much of the film, being told what to do and what not to do throughout, instigating a foreboding atmosphere of unease and entrapment.
Although Rosemary’s Baby and Mother! are deliciously rich in theme and detail, there is a particular element that truly intensifies the horror in both films: the isolation of the female protagonist.
Rosemary’s Baby is a renowned classic of the horror genre, its lack of explicit gore and violence not dampening but heightening the terror it evokes. Our imaginations are fiendishly teased with disorientating images and hints to the unspeakable – the fear lies in what we don’t see.
We first meet Rosemary (Mia Farrow) when she and her husband, Guy, are house hunting in New York – presumably newlyweds, they’re loving and flirtatious with one another. Upon buying a flat in the Dakota Building, life is idyllic – the young couple plan to have a baby and Rosemary befriends a young neighbour, Terri. However, things take a startling turn when Terri is found dead outside the building, having ‘fallen’ from a window one night. Not long after, Rosemary and Guy grow close with an eccentric elderly couple, the Castevettes. Gradually, these freaky crones show themselves to be pushy and intrusive, particularly after Rosemary becomes pregnant. With allusions to the occult and witchcraft throughout, the sinister reasons as to why the Castevettes come into Rosemary’s life are only revealed to her (and subsequently us) in the infamous climactic scene.
The theme of isolation displays itself in many ways as Rosemary is slowly cut off from all means of independence. As previously mentioned, the Castevettes and their circle of friends intervene during Rosemary’s pregnancy (and even after), so much so that they monitor Rosemary’s diet and medical check-ups, providing her with strange vitamin drinks and their own recommended doctor. To add to this, as Guy suspiciously becomes more influenced by the Castevettes, he’s shown to be deeply selfish and manipulative, often gas-lighting Rosemary and accusing her of paranoia. Thus, she becomes emotionally, mentally and physically swamped, unable to make her own decisions and ignored when questioning those around her. Although Rosemary adheres to traditional gender roles in the beginning, wanting to be a good homemaker and supportive wife, this sense of subservience escalates to troubling heights as she is denied any means of autonomy. It’s a twisted, exaggerated perception of female passivity, exemplifying the toxicity of such control by directly linking it with the diabolical!
The film is all the more aggressively invasive due to the attack on Mia Farrow’s angelic beauty and demure nature, exaggerating the evil at odds with such a pure character. During her pregnancy, her appearance deteriorates, making her look even more fragile; her skin becomes translucent, her eyes darker and her figure verges on skeletal. Thus, she arguably becomes stripped, not only of her free-will, but also her healthier human appearance, as pointed out by a friend, “you look like a piece of chalk”. In this, she becomes isolated from society, even being cut off from those closest to her as she gradually grows to look more inhuman. She is contrasted further by her immediate juxtaposition to her environment and those who inhabit it; she’s very young, often surrounded by elderly people and the urban setting itself contradicts the fact she identifies more with rural life, “I guess I’m a country girl at heart”. Hence, as she is confined to the apartment for most of the film, the creepy atmosphere implemented by the infamous Dakota Building, filled with looming shadows and gloomy hallways, makes Rosemary look like a spring lamb trapped in a dark labyrinth.
The colour red is also used to emphasise Rosemary’s isolation further. For example, against a fairly muted background, she is often dressed in red and Guy, at one point, decorates the flat with red roses in tribute to her name. The connotations red holds with violence instantly contrasts Rosemary to the rest of the world presented through pastel shades, lending her an aura of evil foreboding. Another interesting use of red occurs in the font colour of Time magazine’s headline, ‘Is God dead?’. The film leads us to believe so, though this is only confirmed when soon after, Rosemary whispers ‘God bless Doctor Hill’ after she believes he has rescued her – only for him to betray her and return Rosemary back to Guy and the Castevettes.
In the latter half of the film, the question of madness lingers over Rosemary, a significant contributor to her escalating alienation. She is subsequently accused of insanity, Doctor Saperstein even threatening to have her interned in an asylum at one point. The influence that is imposed upon her is thus truly terrifying; the claustrophobia implemented by the grotesque imagery of the rape scene and the sounds of cackling and mysterious incantations through the wall lend a disorientating quality that amplifies her isolation. Her judgement is skewed, thus the fate of our protagonist always feels unstable. Despite her earnest protests, no one believes Rosemary’s revelations about the coven preying on her. Hence, the horror begins to lie not so much in the supernatural forces at work against Rosemary, but in the fact that she is utterly alone in seeing its evil; no one else opposes it, and through their subservience/ ignorance, her isolation peaks.
Upon its release, Mother! was deemed to be ‘the most controversial movie since A Clockwork Orange’. Confounding and perverse, it obliterates storytelling convention in favour of artistic beauty, metaphor and absurdism. Hence, it’s no understatement to sight Mother! as one of most unsettling psychological thrillers ever made; the trauma we see our protagonist endure verging dangerously along the lines of sadism.
In its opening we’re introduced to Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) in their large country home. It’s a tranquil paradise, peacefully adrift from the rest of the world. However, there’s an echo of ghostly destruction in the air as we see the house, blackened and scorched, rise from the ashes, transforming into a serene, pastel palace. Mother is suited to her surroundings, her appearance teetering on ethereal; she’s dressed in flowing white, her hair in a long braid. She’s also deeply artistic and nurturing, devoted to renovating and rebuilding their home. However, despite her very loving nature, she’s clearly a solitary being, as she longs to be alone with her husband. Thus, the intrusion of strangers who come to marvel at her husband, ‘the poet’, increasing with every visit, feels unbearably intrusive. Hence, as the hysteria escalates, we see her swarmed by unfathomable violence and violation; an assault on the senses, her alienation and helplessness is intolerably visceral.
The isolation she experiences is aided by multiple factors, notably the production design. Despite the celestial atmosphere the house offers, its architecture, consisting of spirals and circles, gradually becomes a symbol of her entrapment and the cycle she’s bound to. Furthermore, the entire film takes place within the house, the only hint we’re given to the outside world being brief exterior shots of the surrounding meadow. We’re trapped with her. As well as this, the house seems to be alive, particularly when Mother is distressed – it burns, bleeds and creaks, a cancerous decay seemingly and very gradually spreading through its foundations. Hence, the audience are forced to question Mother’s relationship to the home she’s built; is it an extension of her or is it against her? Regardless of the answer, the atmosphere is inescapably hostile toward her, despite the ardent care with which she attends it.
The fact there is no score accompanying the action heightens this sense of unease, except for a strange and prominent ringing sound that arises when Mother is most vexed. It’s reminiscent of struck glass, as though she’s trapped in a vase; a tormented spectator, alienated and unable to intervene. The sound and thus the feeling it evokes is also eerily in keeping with the crystal her husband keeps in his study, an apparently invaluable ornament. Hence, this may be alluding to his possession of Mother and also her ever growing depersonalisation. He takes advantage of her ceaseless generosity, wringing her dry, compelling the sacrifices she makes for him to be utterly futile. He is narcissistic and insecure, stripping her of all dignity as he exposes her to frenzied mobs, utterly ignorant to her pain as he basks in the adoration of the crowd. Thus, she’s ultimately a victim of his vanity, suffering horrendously as he exhausts all of her mental, physical and emotional limits. Here, the horror lies explicably in his nightmarish betrayal of her and her grief-stricken realisation of this, “You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you. I GAVE YOU EVERYTHING”.
The sense of claustrophobia that builds throughout is also deeply unnerving. The pace of the dialogue is sharp and cutting, allowing little to no space to breathe. This is amplified by the use of extreme close-ups, ensuring faces crowd the screen even during the most intimately quiet moments between Mother and Him. The predominant use of following shots also heightens this, forcing the audience to feel as though we exist, with Mother, amidst the action rather than watching it from a safe distance, thus making the barbarism all the more harrowing. The climactic mob scenes are savagely brutal, overflowing with splintering chaos, terrifying in its startling contrast of energy. Opposed to Mother, a demure and caring figure, is a mass of the reckless, spoilt and gluttonous, irremovable in their desire to steal and destruct. They constantly take from her, whether that be food, shelter, space or hospitality. Soon enough this rapidly descends into hellish debauchery, her home quickly transitioning from a rave into a riot and finally, a war zone of blood-soaked carnage. Throughout this ordeal, we see Mother pushed, thrown and crushed as she’s forced to crawl through the ruins of her own house, screaming and crying. Despite being in the midst of an overwhelming crowd, Mother’s isolation is agonisingly amplified, alone in her terror as she and everything she loves is irrevocably defiled.
Overall, alienation feeds, fuels and electrifies the terror intrinsic to Rosemary’s Baby and Mother! In the former, malefic control guarantees the torturous unravelling of free-will, whereas in the latter, grotesque mania ensures dehumanisation of the individual. Although implemented in different ways, both films express striking similarities in the way alienation impacts our respective heroines. Predominantly, the horror evoked is unique to these two narratives; amalgamating the oppression both women experience via their husband’s gratuitous narcissism and the use of the personal to filter terrifying supernatural malice. Furthermore, isolation is born, and there is no hope or reassurance after the screen menacingly fades to black.
by Angel Lloyd
Angel Lloyd graduated from University of York in 2018 with a degree in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. Admittedly always felt like a traitor as film stole my heart long ago. Wish and hope to become a screenwriter/playwright. Graduated from BFI Scriptwriting Academy in 2015 and Northern Stars Documentary Academy in 2014. Much love and adoration for Carrie Fisher, Julie Taymor and Andrea Arnold. Soft spot for Baz Luhrmann glamour and Tim Burton wackiness. Favourite films include Withnail and I, Edward Scissorhands, Nowhere Boy and Moulin Rouge.
Categories: Anything and Everything