“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca and its 2020 remake of the same name (dir. Ben Wheatley) begin with the same opening line, narrated by their respective soon-to-be Mrs. Winter(s). Yet to compare the two is to damn the latter, a sad excuse for a gothic horror (modern or not), polluted by clichéd writing, poor performances, and a thorough lack of substance. Wheatley’s Rebecca unwittingly rids itself of all that makes Hitchcock’s adaptation successful, proposing a (very strong) argument against the necessity of remakes. The eighty-year gap between Rebeccas, the newest at the heel of Hitchcock’s gargantuan legacy in film, connotes vast changes to cinema––from the industry, the technology, and the audience. Wheatley’s Rebecca explains to us why Hitchcock was a great filmmaker. It also requires us to ask: Can Hitchcockian cinema be translated to the contemporary?
The two Rebeccas depart from each other immediately following their opening line, the narrations ensue thusly:
“It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive. And for a while, I could not enter for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden, with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done. But as I advanced, I was aware that a change had come upon it. Nature had come into her own again. And little by little, had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. On and on wound the poor thread that had once been our drive. And finally there was Manderley. Manderley. Secretive and silent. Time could not marr the perfect symmetry of those walls….[cont.]”
“I dreamt that where our drive once lay, a dark and tortured jungle grew. Nature had come into her own and yet the house still stood. Manderly. Secretive and silent as it had always been. Risen from the dead. Like all dreamers I was allowed to pass through my memory. Spanning the years like a bridge. Back to that summer in Monte Carlo when I knew nothing and had no prospects.”
Rebeccas’ respective introductions attests to the quality of all that follows them. Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison can be credited with the former, which is three times as long (spanning almost two minute) but far more elegant in prose. Hitchcock’s Rebecca takes its time presenting plot and characters, masterfully developing the film’s suspense. The circumstances of the (second) Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine)’s dissolving psychological stability is not revealed to us as yet. Hitchcock positions the audience in her dream, seeing the same eerie images of Manderley as she does, experiencing a sort of wistful longing.
Wheatley’s Rebecca gives no credit to the audience. Made for plot-driven consumers, the film’s “tell don’t show” ethos corrupts (early on) any sort of filmic suspense. Lily James’ Mrs. de Winter narrates her dream in expository clichés; her words “risen from the dead” coupled with imagery––the flickering of a fire, the cocking of a gun, the closing of a padlock––revealing Manderley’s (and her own) fate. For the uninitiated viewer, these images aren’t associated with the preceding plot. But they do evoke a sense of what-is-to-come, telling us explicitly that it won’t be good. James’ narration continues:
“I can see the girl I was so clearly, even if I no longer recognize her. And I wonder what my life would have been without Mrs. Van Hopper. Without that job. Funny to think that the course of my existence hung like a thread upon her curiosity. If it wasn’t for her, I would have never gone to Manderley…”
In not even the first three minutes, the audience is told that she will undergo a drastic change, that her job with Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) sets the circumstances of her life towards Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and to Manderley. Of course, the audience still anticipates what is to come––but the anticipation is lessened, and plot is given away in language and images. Wheatley has taken Hitchcock’s strong suit of armor––his mastery over suspense––and thrown it away, leaving behind nothing but empty aesthetic and uninteresting characters.
Hitchcock’s Rebecca conjures a sense of the foreboding, but it does so much more subtly. Transitioning from her dream of Manderley to the rocky shores of a raging ocean, the camera tilts upward, revealing Maxim’s (Laurence Olivier) figure standing at a cliff’s edge, staring down at the treacherous waters below. He takes a step forward––“NO! STOP!” she yells, assuming he is to jump. Here, on the rocky cliffs in Monte Carlo, does she first meet Maxim––a scene sinfully erased from the 2020 version. Olivier’s Maxim shows his fiery temper. He shouts back at her, reprimanding her for yelling and dismissing her assumptions about his intentions.
Hammer’s Maxim is pure suave in their first encounter, which is reduced to a rom-com meet-cute: the young woman (and soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter) asks the hotel’s maître d’ to sit Maxim de Winter next to her boss, Mrs. Van Hopper. Attempting to tip (bribe) the head waiter, she drops a handful of coins. The man behind her bends down to help her pick them up, whispering to her: “Don’t do it. I’ve heard he’s a terrible bore.” Moments later, the maître d’ escorts the same man to his table. Surprise, it just happens to be de Winter himself. The mystique of Olivier’s Maxim demolished, Armie’s rendering is pure charm––or at least whatever you would call American poster-boy good looks with three-piece suits and an unconvincing British accent. Lily James is more convincing, though her character’s immediate infatuation with him never makes much sense.
The new remake is soaked in “Lana Del Rey energy”. It offers a glamorous vision of tragedy––vengeful lovers, suicide, arson and all. Wheatley’s film tries to make Daphne du Maurier’s novel contemporary, but somehow manages to produce an even more regressive archetype of female suffering and desire. James’ Mrs. de Winter has more agency, putting herself in charge of acquitting her new husband of murder charges. But her devotion to Maxim is conditional upon hating other women.
Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, haunts Mrs. de Winter––existing for her as a psychological torture in ghost-form. Rebecca’s presence can be felt all throughout Manderley; her purported “perfectness” drives Mrs. de Winter to the brinks of hysteria. She compares herself to Maxim’s late wife in an endless cycle of internalized misogyny. It could be that the original source material for Rebecca is itself steeped in sexism. But in an attempt to flesh out Mrs. de Winter’s character and revise some of her submissiveness, Wheatley betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of female empowerment.
Wheatley’s film depicts what were in Hitchcock’s film only undertones of the “psycho lesbian” trope. Leaving lesbianism as subtext––in a story inextricably tied to the emotional conditions of Danvers’ queerness––should be condemned in contemporary context. But Wheatley explicitly names the nature of their relationship ––Rebecca being “the only person [Mrs. Danvers] loved”––and actively worsens the representation of a queer character. The terms of Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Manderley’s housekeeper, and Rebecca’s relationship are never explored, though the film tells us it was not that of close friends: “And why shouldn’t a woman amuse herself? She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebeca. No wonder a man had to kill her.”
Rebecca (2020) tries to make up for the sexism that plagues the classical Hollywood film with a kind of second-wave feminism. Danvers’ words name a condition of gender inequality, but Mrs. de Winter’s response sums up the film’s failure to embody progressive values: “It must have hurt. Knowing your only friend in the world took a secret like that to her grave. Pack your bags Mrs. Danvers. I expect you gone by nightfall.” Mrs. de Winter’s hatred for Danvers (and her late lover, Rebecca) trumps all, her sympathy lacking much genuine expression.
For Mrs. de Winter, protecting Maxime takes priority––even over Danver’s life. There are countless unnecessary additions to the 2020 Rebecca, though arguably the most wicked is that of Danver’s death. Standing on a rocky cliff––immediately analogous to that of Hitchcock’s film. Hitchcock uses his ocean imagery for sharp suspenseful effect. Wheatley instead uses it for aesthetic, and glamorizing suicide. Danvers faces a fatal fate in both adaptations, though in Hitchcock’s she dies in fire she sets off at Manderley––her choice in her own death is never foregrounded.
Wheatley makes Danvers’ death a cinematic ordeal, citing a normative understanding of her (lesbian) love as tragic and her life as expendable:
[Mrs. de Winter]: “You don’t have to do this.”
[Mrs. Danvers]: “I know you’ll stand by him. But you’ll never know happiness.”
[Mrs. de Winter]: “Yes I will.”
Seconds later, Danvers jumps off the cliff into dark stormy waters. Mrs. de Winter’s (straight) happiness is mindlessly juxtaposed with Danvers’ (gay) happiness, the former coming only at the expense of the latter’s suffering. Lesbianism is relegated to subtext in Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca, but in Wheatley’s, it is a life not worth living.
Mrs. de Winter, in her contemporary re-imagining, is seemingly independent in expressing her desire––the dominant counterpart to her comparatively submissive nature in Hitchcock’s. But her ability for self-actualization is only quasi-feminist, keeping in place outdated values of homophobia and misogyny.
Can Hitchcockian cinema be translated to the contemporary? Rebecca (2020) suggests it can’t–– and the reasons can’t be relegated only to its director. Wheatley certainly lacks the ease with which Hitchcock translates filmic language into suspense, making for a rather boring and unoriginal remake. But Rebecca (2020) owes its failure to the time. Hitchcockian film techniques––the “MacGuffin”, the attention to voyeurism, the cameos, and of course the suspense––are all ubiquitous in contemporary cinema. The stories Hitchcock chose to tell however, might not be as timeless as his technique. His hatred for women is well-documented, especially through his filmography: “There’s the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don’t worry, they all get punished in the end (Bidisha).” Trying to temper his misogyny for modern audiences is not an easy task––Wheatley fails miserably. Perhaps, with a female director and crew, Rebecca could be retold with more nuance. But maybe it’s best to leave some stories in the past.
*Rebecca (1940) is available on YouTube. The new remake is streaming on Netflix.
Bidisha. “What’s wrong with Hitchcock’s women.” The Guardian, 21 October 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/oct/21/alfred-hitchcock-women-psycho-the-birds-bidisha. Accessed 24 October 2020.
Scott, A.O. “‘Rebecca’ Review: A Classic Tale, but There’s Only One Hitch.” The New York Times, 21 October 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/21/movies/rebecca-review.html. Accessed 23 October 2020.