‘Rebecca’ and the ghost of Joan Fontaine

Armie Hammer and Lily James star in the remake of the classic Rebecca, now streaming on Netflix.

THE sumptuous production design brings us back to Manderley and that age of manners gilded amorality. Once we are there, we feel something is missing. Is it the heart of a memory? Is it the feeling someone—something—is taking away what belongs to our remembrances, even if it’s in the domain of cinema?

When the news got out that Rebecca, that 1940 film noir of a romance movie, was having a remake, many cineastes asked: Why? There is a particular question that needs a particular answer: What was the reason for Bert Wheatley to do a remake.

To be fair, there are no rules about remakes. But there are fast rules about memories. Some films, for good or bad, do not beg for a remake for the simple reason that those films have become etched in the mind—and heart—of those who have viewed them. The same films whose images have become indelible have also been studied, their reviews preserved in books meant to become part of the heritage of cinema.

Again, there is no law which orders us that films belonging to a canon in film aesthetics cannot be retold again. Still, how does one contend with canonization in arts?

To be fair, I must admit I was not fair when I started viewing and reviewing the present Rebecca. Long before the opening credits rolled, I was already contending with the opening scene of the “original” Rebecca. I should have recognized the intertextual burden but I opted to let the present contend with the past. May the better time win!

Recall the massively imposing gate and the camera swimming through its curlicues and gothic swirl, above and close to the hedges, while lights and reflections from behind the trees shine and vanish as an ever-present darkness shrouds the entrance to a haunting house at the end of the road. Over this forbidding introduction, a voice, wan but mannered in the style of those years, the voice of Joan Fontaine is velvet declamation rather than merely recalling.

From that opening, which is terrifying as it is terrific filmmaking and editing, the scene drifts to mighty crags, with the camera climbing the side until it angles to catch a man standing on a precipice. The camera goes up close to the legs in contrapposto position, and indeed one leg starts to move. Is he about to jump off the cliff? But a woman from below shouts and stops him from what we (sharing the view and mind of the woman) think he is about to do. The man is irritated. We know he is because the camera has gone to his face. Laurence Olivier it is! And he is in that matinee idol looks of his before he switched if off to allow the gravitas of those terribly heavy roles to take over.

The woman looking up is Joan Fontaine, one of the major faces and voices that ever graced Hollywood. She is plain-looking in this opening scene but as the story deepens, she becomes the loveliest image of a film about love and the tricks memory plays with the past.

Fontaine is also one of those actors of old Hollywood described always as having a look the camera is forever in love with.

To the present, we contend with two actors, Lily James and Armie Hammer, burdened with the vestigial vision of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Two difficult acts to follow and a project is asking them to follow those acts, whether they like it or not.

The 2020 Rebecca is not that bad. The manor has been “reconstructed” so well we feel we are contending with another actor—a structure that houses secrets and seductions. But it is this very same virtue that becomes a trap into which it falls and never rescues itself from. Because every time the camera pans around and lingers over the most delicate of chemise and the wind blows through those French windows with their gossamer drapes, you long for the ghost of Joan Fontaine.

Lily James is no Joan Fontaine. While this may sound ad hominem, there is a world out there that has witnessed another Mrs. De Winter and that is Joan Fontaine. It is the sheer vulnerability of Fontaine that had the audience of the 1940s and those who have seen the film rooting for the present even as we pity the past. Rebecca the character is never shown in the narrative but Joan Fontaine makes her live again as she stands enchanted and enchanting in the well-preserved room of the first original mistress of the manor.

In the characterization of Lily James, the new Mrs. De Winter is an inquisitive, nearly arrogant upstart. She looks lost in some scenes but that look is more a function of what she appears to demand immediately from the house and the memories. From the start, we know the Mrs. De Winter does not deserve the phantoms of Manderley, and that is good.

The Rebecca in the story—1940 and 2020 editions—may have vanished but there is a scarier ghost in that huge house and she is not even dead. This is Mrs. Danvers played in the remake by Kristin Scott-Thomas. Here, the playing field has changed. True, the  English-French actor has to face up to a mighty competition—the grand actor Dame Judith Anderson—but acting is a tradition that can change.

Scott-Thomas’s governess is more haunting than the phantasm provided by Anderson. Both have tendency to use broad strokes, with the present Mrs. Danvers hewing closer to realistic portrayal. In the remake, more closets are closed and more are opened, with Mrs. Danvers professing, it seems, attraction rather than loyalty to her Rebecca. In the present narrative, Mrs. Danvers looks to the house as the domain of Rebecca rather than an empire to be preserved.

The actors and filmmakers should have looked at Judith Anderson’s magnificent portrayal of servitude as well. More deranged than deprived of love, Anderson’s sharp turn and twist of the body and the head are cultivated taste. Known for her sterling performance as Medea, she appears to have strayed from a staging of a play by Euripides into a Hitchcock set where—spoiler alert for those who have not seen the old and new Rebecca—she is credible as arsonist with the pedigree of a tragic artist.

Rebecca is the great director Alfred Hitchcock’s first American project. The screenplay is attributed to Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, with adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan. The 1940 and 2020 Rebecca are both based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

Records attest to Rebecca having been released in 1940 to critical and commercial success. The film received 11 nominations at the 13th Academy Awards, where it won two awards; Best Picture and Best Cinematography.

In 2018, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Rebecca, presently described as a “2020 British romantic thriller film” now streaming on Netflix, is directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.


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