The Burning Church in Rosemary’s Baby

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Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, is known for many things, mainly for the subtle and undetected way in which all the clues of what are going on are woven into a seemingly everyday plot. But only Rosemary Woodhouse, of Omaha, noticed something odd during their first visit with the Castavettes. They took down the paintings, she says: and it is ignored. I’ve enjoyed that scene many times, and never once took notice of her remark, or attended to the fact that she was right, there are lighter areas on the walls, and above the mantel, where paintings have been removed. We later find out that they were in fact removed when Rosemary breaks in through the secret closet and comes upon two examples of their art collection, all up, in place. The first one, directly through the sealed door, is a panoramic painting of a fiery conflagration, the burning of a cathedral. It is in full flame, I do not know its author, but its fiery sky gives it a kind of John Martin quality, it is a statement of anti-church rhetoric, verbally expressed by Roman at the dinner, but held back on out of politeness. The nave of the church is engulfed in flame, and the extensive redness of the flame relates this image to red sky portents of disaster. It is a disaster image. There is also something physiogonomic, and of a satanic sort, in the fire-smashed rose windows, and one tower is caught in the active state of falling, allowing the viewer to participate in the depicted destruction. It is a “scenic painting” or “action painting” which, it has been noted, is a convention of horror movies, and particularly European horror movies, derived from the tradition of the quadreria. Why is the painting pictured, in the movie, directly as Rosemary comes through the closet door? One, in its fiery quality, it reminds us of the fire and police department having come to the building after the suicide of their previous tanis-wearing ward. The blood on the sidewalk is returned to the redness that normally meets such response. However, the truth is it is rare to see full flame fires in real life. The trope of meeting a next door neighbor in New York through a tragedy, as if that is the only thing that will break the very thick ice between residents of the city, is a common one, and happens too in real life (note: as it did for me). Just as red on the sidewalk, and red paint on her breasts, belly and hips, have initiated her into the cult, so here she is brought in entirely. Two, the movie also plays on, from the very first scenes, when Elisha Cook shows them the apartment, the urban legend of the sealed door, a former access between apartments blocked off by recent residents. The sealed door as a reality, as something that happens in real life, is creepily ambiguous, as, while it is now a wall, and marks the space this side of it as yours, and the space that side of it as theirs, it remains a door, and creates a vulnerability, and an uncomfortable closeness, almost an intimacy, between two lives either side of the door (the inadvertent shared door, in an old hotel, for example, is a variant on this motif). (Note: in New York, I lived with a sealed wall, a wall put up to divide a formerly whole apartment; a door wall, or large door serving as a wall; and an authentic sealed door, a door sealed to make a wall). Rosemary has been feeling this pressure throughout the movie, now she has broken through, and, opening up, she “bursts upon” the fiery conflagration, so it serves as an initiation picture. By the way, she stares at it for quite a few seconds, she takes it in. It is right there, though one guesses that few viewers pay attention to it. This painting, then, as an act of art direction, is cleverly inserted to speak of the dynamics of the story. It’s a nice fictional work of art in a movie, it has belief agency, but mainly initiation, sacrificial agency, it is addressed to Rosemary.

And then in an adjoining room there is a smaller painting, it looks like one of Goya’s witch paintings. Two things about these paintings. First, this would be an example where the “scenic paintings” of an owner specifically declare their belief system, and may even serve, in the case of the Goya, as visual manuals describing ceremonies. This sort of scenic painting is a common element of horror movies, but such a specifically related declarative statement, and with a one to one parallel to his verbal statements, is rare. And, then, second, that is why they had to take them down. They did not want Rosemary seeing them, and turning her away from their plot to have her be the mother of Satan. In Hitchcock’s The Lodger, of 1927, the Lodger makes a little adjustment to his rooms, he removes all of the paintings of actresses that encircle it, and, in the Man on The Third Floor, the Jack Palance remake in the 1950s, he turns them to the wall. But this was an act done by a guest or temporary resident to a suite of paintings or pictures that were already in place, and did not express his beliefs. They were taken down because they reminded him of something, that he did not want to be reminded of. The same sort of thing happens in The Hands of Orlac, when Jose Ferrer has to take a print of the guillotine down off the wall of his Riviera hotel room, because it irritatingly reminds him of something. But a self-censoring self-iconoclasm undertaken on the scale of this deception, one has not heard of this before: and may be why this goes so often unnoticed. This couple, who belabor preparing drinks, and dinner, before their guests arrived, had to, or have to have had someone else to, remove all of the offending pictures. And so their rooms seemed even more dowdy, marked by dust free spots on faded wallpaper, as if it was poorly cared for or underfurnished. If you look closely at these scenes, the evidence is right there. Most flamboyantly, the spot where the haunted portrait of the ancestor goes, above the mantel, is marked in this way, empty. And then when Rosemary comes back in at the end to take charge of the care of her unnatural child, the picture of Adrian Marcat that Hutch found in a book, is restored in the format of a large painted portrait, a classic, rather unremarkable, prototype portrait, in a straightforward relationship with the presider in the room, not unlike in Son of Frankenstein. Therefore, in Rosemary’s Baby, her tour of their satanic art gallery is the flip side of a very rare thing, in the manipulation of portraiture in horror, a calculated and preemptive act of self-iconoclasm and subtractive deception as part of a wider plot of seduction. The purposeful absenting of works of art in a deception is still another way in which human agency involves art in its evil twists and turns in horror.

 

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