United States, 1940

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

With Joan Fontaine (Mrs. de Winter), Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), George Sanders (Favell)

The story is built around an absence: despite giving it its title, Rebecca’s character is nowhere to be seen. She is dead; and even though some characters are keen on sharing their memories about her, the film never uses flashbacks to illustrate them. On the contrary, the camerawork emphasizes they are talking about a non-existent person. The most elaborate instance comes when Maxime de Winter narrates to his new wife what he did to Rebecca one tragic night in the little house on the edge of a cove where they are chatting and where Rebecca liked to retreat. As the despondent fellow describes precisely the moves of his late wife, the camera quietly focuses on the various places where her body stood one after another, in a smooth sweeping move mirroring the relation; it acts as if a real body was there, although void is plain to see, creating a stunning effect.

Trapped in a house, a role, a life too big for her, or so it seems: Joan Fontaine

Earlier, an even eerier atmosphere defined the moment when the new Mrs. de Winter abruptly makes up her mind to visit the bedroom of her predecessor: the gorgeous decorations and sheer size of the room are intimidating; the details are disquieting, like the window suddenly burst open by the sea wind or the way things are arrayed on the dressing table as if someone has just put them down; and the appearance of the mansion’s housekeeper eventually turns the incident as a nightmare, as she depicts the daily habits of Rebecca just as if she was still around, although resentment and regret clearly fill Mrs. Danvers’ voice.

This strangely palpable absence is the challenge the new spouse of the heir of the de Winter fortune must grapple with in order to find her place and her ways around the Cornwall estate where her story unfolds; it is later obvious that it also curses her husband’s life. But if the memories and legacy of Rebecca are cumbersome, it does not really explain the woman’s troubles in full. This is also the tale of a remarkably insecure woman who barely fits in her new world. Maxim de Winter meets her in Monte Carlo where she is a paid companion to an American rich woman, an ungrateful position that has been her only opportunity to get by as she was without relatives. She is timid and clumsy and readily acknowledges that she has little skills, spare drawing. Nevertheless the British aristocrat falls in love with her and marries her fast. However happy he seems to be, she cannot forget she comes into a milieu she does not know to master. The constant reference to Rebecca and her print on the place, aptly symbolized by the “R” initial printed, embossed or embroidered seemingly everywhere, stand as a tall obstacle to jump. Too tall for her, in fact; perhaps another, more talented or just more self-confident, woman could have cleared it one way or another; but she seems bound to fail.

That way, the film sounds like the portrait of a neurosis, the clear-cut and stifling chronicle of a shy girl who is obsessed with what she thinks is an archetype which would ashamed her. It is remarkable how loudly she claims everybody is sizing her up against the standard of Rebecca’s charm and intelligence while actually people never make such remarks for the record; servants seem keen on treating her well, the husband is dismissing swiftly her concerns and his sister is more interested on her relations with Mrs. Danvers than on her own memories of the dead lady. But she feels tormented and her lack of social success and maturity make her dreadfully weak, as witnessed by her fidgety gestures, her worried face and her blunders and her lack of a given identity – she is never called by her maiden name, first name or a nickname (Joan Fontaine’s performance is intense, delicate and truly heartbreaking).

Yet the tragedy does not play out only in her head; she is the true victim of another psychologically flawed character. Mrs. Danvers first appears as a dark, towering, sullen and dour person, sliding along the set to dominate the domesticity standing ready to salute their master and his new wife. This is a stunning introduction for a character: her coming out of nowhere and her staring coldly at the new wife assert bluntly her quietly overpowering authority. She slowly proves to hold a grudge against Mrs. de Winter and articulates it during that impressive sequence in her late mistress’ bedroom. Her attitudes increasingly hint at a real perversity in her relations to Rebecca and the possibility of a lesbian love easily comes to mind (indeed, the way she handles the dead’s garments in the bedroom is heavily erotically suggestive). The troubles run deeper than an unorthodox sentiment; the bond between Mrs. Danvers and Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, suggest relationships build on the most wicked and basest terms.

A new coroner investigation on Rebecca’s death, caused by the chance discovery of her sunk boat with her dead body inside (although it was supposed to have been retrieved on a distant beach long ago), casts those dark characters into an even more glaring and revealing light. The final truth about Rebecca just proves how devious she could be, even against her sidekicks (in particular, it turns out that her incestuous love with Favell would bring him no favor and no luck, as he has once hoped). It leads the film to a dramatic climax which highlights Mrs. Danvers’ complete madness but, in a stunning happy ending, sets Mr. and Mrs. de Winter free from the dreadful and pervasive legacy of his unfortunate first marriage. Those spectacular images are also the brilliant conclusion of a remarkably fluid and bold work on compositions, shots, and the direction of actors. For his first film in the United States, under the aegis of David O. Selznick (a collaboration that turned out to be awkward and bitter), Alfred Hitchcock manages to explore personal malaise cleverly, compelling the audience to get as disturbed by an obsession with a dubious character as the film’s characters, as the camera makes a horrible experience all too concrete.

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