Sexism 1940s-style in Hitchcock’s Rebecca

In conjunction with the Barbican’s Surreal House exhibition, the Freud Museum yesterday hosted a screening of Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘psychological thriller’, Rebecca, complete with psychoanalytical commentary.

The film was introduced by Andrea Sabbadini, of the European Psychoanalytical Film Festival, in the context of some vaguely Freudian concepts: namely, the insecurities that plague a replacement child – or wife in this case – and the dominating presence and personality of the absent Rebecca (in all ways the polar opposite of the second Mrs de Winter).

But the adaptation, and to some extent the book itself, is equally notable in what it reveals about 1940s attitudes to male-female relationships. The story, both as written and interpreted on-screen, is so critically hinged on latent sexism that it’s hard to imagine it would ever pass muster in a modern day setting.

The youthful new (otherwise unnamed) Mrs de Winter’s identity is utterly dependent on her husband’s (Maxim), and, by association, his late wife’s (Rebecca); and to an extent that surely no self-respecting 21st century girl would countenance. She relentlessly apologises and seeks approval – there is one painfully drawn-out shot of her descending the stairs for a party in her new frock, grinning at the unaware Maxim like a puppy-eyed fool – only to be rewarded with a metaphorical pat on the head at best, but more often a full-blown emotional kicking. Where is this woman’s dignity? (The old-man/ girl-child relationship is creepy too, perhaps deliberately so, and probably enhanced by Hitchcock.)

Maxim de Winter’s treatment of his new wife – from his presumptuous marriage proposal and botched ceremony onwards – is excruciatingly condescending. And totally, obliviously, borderline-autistically insensitive. Although intended as a taut psychological thriller, there are some interchanges between husband and wife (of the ‘don’t worry your silly little head about it darling’ type) that can’t help but provoke a modern day audience to astounded laughter.

The story, which is a very good one, is given its complexity through suspicion, misunderstanding, secrecy, miscommunication and deception between the protagonists, all of which goes unchecked because of the pathetic weakness of the central character. The plot turns on an extreme and improbable degree of repression, anomalous to today’s societal norms. The main character is permanently clueless and has no confidence to resolve the situation.

And then there’s poor Rebecca. Denounced by (warning: plot spoiler) Maxim as ‘pure evil’, and on another occasion as ‘the devil’, any deeper reading of her character (incapable of love, compulsively adulterous) would surely reveal a woman in serious need of therapy, if not actual sectioning. And, to be honest, given Maxim’s apparent lack of empathic ability, her infidelity and instability really isn’t that surprising.

As is often the case, the book is a much subtler piece than the film it inspired (as far as I remember), and there are plenty of reasons to admire Hitchcock’s efforts. Certainly at the time it won numerous awards and accolades. But if remade today it would necessarily be a very different film. I’d love to see the results.

1 thought on “Sexism 1940s-style in Hitchcock’s Rebecca”

  1. Have you seen Suspicion? It was released a year after and starred Joan Fontaine again, with many arguably saying this was like a bit of an informal sequel. The sexism is really more apparent in that film.

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