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Seitz: Rosemary’s Baby Can’t Escape the Influence of Papa Polanski

ROSEMARY'S BABY -- Season: 2014 -- Pictured:  Zoe Saldana as Rosemary  -- (Photo by: Nino Munoz/NBC)

The TV remake of Rosemary's Baby is just smart enough that its badness really stings. If you want to get technical, it's not really a "remake," but another stab at adapting Ira Levin's novel. The first, of course, was Roman Polanski's classic 1968 version, starring Mia Farrow as the devil baby incubator in the Vidal Sassoon cut and John Cassavetes as her actor husband, a coldly ambitious boor who pimped wifey to Old Nick for career success. This miniseries version keeps some memorable images and shocks from the Polanski version and adds more plot, characters, gore, and dream sequences, and relocates the whole thing from New York City to Paris. Why?

As written by by Scott Abbott and James Wong (an X-Files veteran), and as directed by the often-terrific Agnieszka Holland (Olivier, Olivier; The Secret Garden), this Baby is such a slog that no sooner do you grab hold of an allusion, a symbol, or a fleeting sense of purpose than it drifts away like smoke. This time Rosemary (played by Zoe Saldana) is a former dancer, and her husband Guy (Patrick J. Adams) is a writer; she supported him during the early part of his career, and now he's landed a teaching job at the Sorbonne. There's a cloud following their relocation: They want to have a child, but Rosemary recently suffered a miscarriage after four months of pregnancy, and any further attempt will be considered high-risk.

The filmmakers have expanded the world of Levin's novel, adding some touches that give it an Italian charnel-house horror-movie feeling (the smeary images in the sex scenes and dream sequences strive for a Dario Argento quality without quite getting there), and others turn the miniseries into a partial homage to Polanski in general, which is unfortunate considering the production's very un-Polanski-like indifference to composition, atmosphere, and editing rhythms. The Paris apartment building the couple moves into is basically a haunted house with a legacy of violence and perversion, rather like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the hospital in Lars von Trier's The Kingdom. The miniseries starts with a flashback to a woman committing suicide by diving off a balcony. After Rosemary and Guy move in, Rosemary begins imagining herself leaping or being pushed by her husband, a trope that recalls the plot of Polanski's 1976 movie The Tenant

The couple landed their amazing apartment via their friendship with Roman and Margaux Castevet (Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet); these are the miniseries' younger, sexier, Continental versions of characters played in the '68 version by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, and they're given a backstory, too. During a party, Rosemary wanders away from the main action and opens the door of a bedroom, where she hallucinates (or perhaps just sees) a mysterious, darkly handsome blue-eyed man engaged in a threesome. The man continues to haunt her imagination, and in time his image acquires a whiff of sulfur, so it's off to the library to study microfiche and learn about the blue-eyed man and the building's sordid history. Apparently a plot to bring Satan's baby into the world wasn't scary enough, so they added conspiracy and a mythology. Why? Because they were hoping to turn Rosemary's Baby into a series with a different devil rape each week?

This excess of plot and incident would be fine if the miniseries were substantially re-imagining an established fictional world, as Bates Motel and Hannibal do, and as certain standalone movie remakes have done (Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear and Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate are two examples of the difference between a daring "cover" version of a familiar tale and a glorified Xerox; whether you approve of them or not, you can't dismiss those movies as mere rehashes). But when you look back on this four-hour, two-night TV production, you'll realize that nearly all of its effective images and moments were culled from the Polanski film, including Rosemary's nightmare of impregnation, her escalating paranoia, the noxious herbal remedy prescribed by her doctor, the short hairdo that Rosemary acquires in the second half (which gives her a bit of a Joan of Arc look), and the darkly comic climax. 

The rest feels like mere embellishment, which is a shame considering how the combination of Saldana's brown skin and the production's wealth-saturated French setting evokes thoughts of colonialism and exploitation. I would have like to have seen an overtly politically conscious take on Levin's novel. The seeds are there. On its most basic level, this miniseries is about an elegant woman of color who's whisked away to one of the ancestral origin points of European colonialism and treated as a natural resource to be exploited by white folks bent on world domination. (Her rapist is a blue-eyed devil.) Such a production might have been heavy-handed, perhaps laughably so, but at least it would have been different, and it would have inoculated the miniseries against charges that it's doing what TV haters rightly said TV used to do in earlier eras: drag out stories unnecessarily, and without artistry, to sell more ads. To quote The Wire, if you're gonna come at the king, you'd best not miss. Polanski's original Rosemary is close to a perfect movie. Every frame is imprinted with the director's mordant humor and fathomless perversity.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Suits star Adams, who plays Guy as a loving but cravenly weak man, and Saldana, who's got the sort of face wars were fought over, and is an emotionally transparent and sometimes hauntingly powerful actress. They all deserve a production that matches their skills. In nearly every scene of this Baby, you're judging it against the Polanski version and wishing you were watching that one instead. The writing is jumbled, the photography often merely pretty, the direction often shockingly clumsy. This new version trudges and stumbles for two nights. How inept is it? Imagine a Glenn Gould performance re-recorded by a bear with oven mitts. 

Photo: NBC