Ms. Representation: Return to Manderley
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rebecca and it's new remake on Netflix
Last night, I visited Manderley again… because Netflix decided to remake the classic, Rebecca. The story originally written by Daphne du Maurier is one of a young woman dazzled by a rich, broody widower, Maxim De Winter, she meets in Monte Carlo. She rushes into a marriage with him only to realise that he is still living in the past, haunted by the memory of ex-wife Rebecca. My first experience with Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 film adaptation of the same name. Swooped into Manderley, the new wife finds it hard to shake off the evocative presence of Rebecca; she struggles to bear the weight of Rebecca’s legacy which lives on, thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Danvers, the faithful housekeeper.
‘Experience’ is the word to use here because you never see the eponymous Rebecca in the film. But you feel her presence—in every frame, in every thought throughout Hitchcock’s film. Just like the new Mrs. De Winter does. It is interesting because an unnamed woman (the new wife is referred to as Mrs. De Winter throughout) is facing off against a faceless woman. Despite withholding two important aspects of identity, Maurier and Hitchcock created two iconic characters on screen with identifiable traits. Mrs. De Winter is insecure, meek, dull, and drab, someone scared of her own house help, whose words barely rise above a whisper. On the other hand, there is Rebecca—charming, sophisticated, confident, talented, and ‘a beauty like none before’. Both these women become the centerpieces of a gothic romance, a tale of toxic relationships and oppression shaped by the notions of that era.
No film is beyond a newer adaptation, not even Rebecca. The original film has Mrs. De Winter succumbing to the idea of being an inept matriarch. She is ignorant of her toxic relationship with the controlling Maxim De Winter, a vulnerable woman who lives in the walls of patriarchy, desperately wanting her marriage to succeed. And then there is Rebecca, who made me wonder why she had to marry Maxim in the first place. Despite her chosen rebellious lifestyle, there is still enough to explore how marriage has never been a choice but a mandate. And there’s the homosexual undercurrent between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, hinted at by Hitchcock in one marvellous scene between Mrs. Danvers and the new Mrs. De Winter. Taking the latter through Rebecca’s room, which she has pristinely maintained, Danvers stops to cuddle with Rebecca’s clothes and smell her scent. But the film leaves it at that. And the most important of all, Rebecca’s death is made to be an accident because of the production codes in place back then.
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca ‘updates’ some of these threads, but to no good effect. If Rebecca is the protagonist in the 1940 film, Mrs. De Winters steps up here. Played by Lily James, Mrs. De Winter is more confident and well-read with ambitions. (“All I know is from books. I haven’t seen much, but I plan to before I get old.") And her originally frosty equation with Maxim has now been polished off into a cutesy summer romance, replete with sexual energy. However, the larger story doesn’t seem to take note of these changes. Once Mrs. De Winter steps into Manderley, she is still shown to be frightened of the surly Mrs. Danvers and haunted by the lingering memory of Rebecca. Why? (Insert: Jackie Chan confused.gif) Despite being more sympathetic to Mrs. Danvers, the new version only flattens the homosexual undertones of the original. She might still be trapped by conventional standards, but is her 'confidence' making any difference? By the time her 'agency' makes an appearance by the end of the film, it becomes too late. It seems like an unfortunate metaphor that Maxim puts a gun in her hand, and she doesn’t use it. One could say the same about Mrs. De Winters herself.
A well-written woman character doesn’t necessarily need to be progressive. I have said this before and will say it again: all kinds of women should be represented, including the conservative, meek, and the flawed. The key characteristic of a well-written woman is consistency. Our cinema is quite a frequent offender here. Even female leads with agency turn into props when the hero has to save her. As Mark Twain famously observed, ‘Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities'. And it is consistency that makes it better, not convenience.