Rebecca (Netflix, 2020)


First published on Patreon early access.

It’s been a while since I last read Rebecca, and it’s been even longer since I last watched the Hitchcock adaptation. So I went into this movie still knowing the plot, but having quite forgotten some of the more unsettling details. Or, rather, some of the small, seemingly inconsequential bits and pieces that, seeing it brought to the screen once again, really make this story sing.

Mrs de Winter steps from a fairy tale right into a ghost story, but if you were expecting actual ghosts, you will be disappointed this time. The horror aspect of this story — and the way it’s adapted here, visually — is firmly rooted in playing with Mrs de Winter’s naiveté, her anxieties and innocence. Danvers (a marvellous turn in the role by Kristin Scott Thomas) is a master at gaslighting; and Rebecca shows that there is no lie too small or too blatant to make someone doubt their own mind. Or, more importantly, to make everyone else doubt her.

Danvers lying about Favell coming to Manderley would have been as easily disproven as whether it rained or not, because people did see him, but it’s more insidious than that. Rather than merely lying to Mrs de Winter’s face, Danvers’s denial implies that if Favell didn’t come to see her, then he must have been there to see Mrs de Winter. This then turns into calamity as Maxim is told about the visit. So Mrs de Winter is not cast as “seeing things,” but rather as a liar looking to implicate someone else in her own affair.

It’s primed perfectly: Favell warns her of Maxim’s “infamous temper,” and then Danvers incites it by having Maxim informed of Favell’s presence. It dangerously sways Mrs de Winter to fear her husband and, after falling prey to Danvers’ further machinations, calling upon her for help.

Rebecca: Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

What’s so perfidious is that Danvers’ actions aren’t just designed to hurt the new Mrs de Winter, but they’re designed to taunt Maxim as well. When Danvers predicts that “he will never be happy,” it’s not just that Mrs de Winter can’t give him what Rebecca could, it’s that Danvers wants him to suffer for the rest of his life, too. When she pulls the strings so that Mrs de Winter wears the same costume as Rebecca at her final ball, it’s to drive a wedge between Maxim and Mrs de Winter, but on balance — and it’s invisible at first — it’s far more outright traumatising for him than it is for her. His anger comes from seeing the woman he truly loves in the same dress, looking the same, as the one who’d made his life a living hell and whom, caught in his own sense of honour, he couldn’t escape.

I suppose the book deals in some more ambiguity as to the motives of Maxim killing Rebecca, however I think the Netflix adaptation wants us to see there being more to the relationship and the hurt that Rebecca inflicted on him. I’ve seen him decried as a douche bag who was mad that his wife cheated on him, which is fair, but I think in this adaptation there is more to it than that.

If the roles were reversed, we would have no trouble believing that a woman genuinely suffered from her husband’s infidelity. We would take it as read that emotional cruelty and perhaps also physical cruelty may easily also have been part of that relationship.

So I think to brush off Maxim’s reaction as simply wounded pride at being cuckolded is to overlook that if he truly loved her, her betrayal of him would’ve deeply hurt him. Besides, there is a lot of media in which women kill their husbands for being unfaithful, and those are generally seen as feminist. I think it’s reasonable to extend the same grace to a husband being such betrayed by his wife. I mean of course he shouldn’t have bloody shot her, but he did, so now what do we do?

What slightly dents this interpretation, of course, is that he would’ve been able to divorce her but didn’t out of concern for the family’s standing. Although I do think that Rebecca weaponised that no one would’ve believed him, and that everyone would’ve believed him to be a cad for leaving her. A fool, at best. He probably could’ve produced proof, and even without, the courts would’ve been on his side. Rebecca’s whole deal is undercutting that power dynamic, subverting it, and using it to her own advantage. And the delicious aspect is that even as it is clear that she must’ve been cruel, everything she did had “power move” written all over it. She wasn’t taking revenge on Maxim, per se, but she took revenge on everything the world had done to women. And everyone loved her. (Playing the part perfectly is a hallmark of a cruel partner.) I don’t doubt that Danvers helped her gaslight Maxim, too, and that that is why he is blind to Danvers’ deception of Mrs de Winter, She’s still there, and he’s scared of her. Not least because I’m sure he fears she knows everything.

Lily James plays her role solidly, given that she has to be by turns naive and finding her steel, which even when she does, while still in England, still holds an edge of childish playacting. At the end of the movie, she seems far more grown-up; though there is so much to unpack in that final scene.

I wouldn’t see the movie as attempting to give Mrs de Winter a big feminist overhaul. I think it’s quite clear that even in the moments where she steels herself there is some childishness left in her, and that part of it is performance of her becoming a woman of stature. I’ve seen it declared a fault in Lily James’s acting, but rather I believe that it is a feature not a bug. I think it’s most obvious in the scene where she puts on her fancy new costume for court and watches herself in the mirror and there is still the air of a young girl trying on her mother’s clothes.

© Netflix, 2020

Placing them in Cairo reeks, naturally, of imperialism, since as an English couple, they can go pretty much anywhere in the world and just live there; and seeing her smoking as a sign of further losing her innocence; seeing her on more even footing with her husband through the challenge in her gaze, also calls up notions of the Orient as an exotic, liberating place that scrapes pretty close by stereotypes of dangerous eroticism.

Armie Hammer plays Maxim de Winter with a mix of boyish charm and awkward, restrained flirtation that, in Monte Carlo, covers up his emotional baggage almost too well. The red flags are there, though — not necessarily red flags that he’s dangerous, though his temper may suggest it if viewed in isolation. They’re red flags, rather, that the death of his wife still haunts him deeply, and even without knowing the true story, it ought not come as a surprise that there will be bouts of depression. His sleepwalking, then, hints at something even more deep-seated. But because everyone is so eager to paint Mrs de Winter and Rebecca as rivals for his affections, she is blinded to what’s really wrong with him: fear. And indeed, Hammer plays that fear with enough subtlety that it’s easily misinterpreted.

One thing I loved about this movie is the set design: Manderley looks, for the most part, so much like an old English country manor. But then, Rebecca’s quarters are so decidedly modern, so 1930s art deco. The carpet, the wallpaper, the by turns clean lines paired with lavish fabrics. Her clothes alone! It’s a pity we didn’t get more of a look into her wardrobe. 

I am glad they didn’t cast someone for her for flashbacks: this way, she lives entirely in our imaginations. Her face, her eyes, the cruelty of her smile, it’s all ours to imagine.

In Gothic horror terms, Rebecca is certainly the definition of cruel beauty (albeit not visually, as we barely actually see her), as she is reminiscent of the concept of the monstrous feminine. Hardly because she transforms on the full moon, no, but her cancer diagnosis seems designed to lend her an air of monstrosity — not least because it is a growth in her womb, then misconstrued as a pregnancy. It’s making a weapon of her reproductive organs. In part, she’s being punished for her crimes; in part it feels like an expression of the ugliness of her spirit. A disease, making visible her faults. Faults that she adopted because she wanted the same from life as men: sexual freedom, money, respect. Everyone loved her, because no-one knew who she really was. Apart from Favell and Danvers, and they’re painted as exactly as devious as she was. Danvers for living vicariously through her, and Favell, well. His own cousin.

Watching or reading Rebecca, I always wish that the courtroom drama were a bigger part of the framing narrative. That’s no slight on either the novel or the movie adaptations, I’m just a sucker for courtroom drama. In this new Netflix adaptation in particular, as directed by Ben Wheatley, it is especially well done. The claustrophobic quality of those tiny coroner’s chambers where the inquest is held to determine cause of death is so different from the way courtroom drama plays out in contemporary narratives; especially American ones. (The posturing and underhanded tactics remain the same, though.)

The inquest is cut short, in the end, by Mrs de Winter (no, she really never does get a first name) doing her own investigating and finding out the truth about Rebecca’s death. It always seems a little miraculous, to have it resolved so suddenly, and perhaps that is why I wish that that suspense were held in the air for longer, from the beginning. But perhaps my bewilderment is Maxim’s, at finding the world turned upside-down so many times in as many days; perhaps that’s why it works. And perhaps, in the end, Rebecca’s secrets are a lot more mundane than her legend would have us believe.

Just as, in the end, Maxim gave her what she wanted.

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