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Crazy, Creepy Love: Romance is Dangerous in Rebecca, Jane Eyre

by Matt Brennan
August 22, 2011 4:10 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood


In this week's “Now and Then" column, Matt Brennan looks at two adaptations of Gothic novels: Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (out on DVD), see trailers below.


A pair of young women, the rough men who love them, the creepy manors they live in, and the eerie forces attempting to thwart them: it’s enough to make you wish you had a fainting couch.

“Can I tell you something that’s going to make you livid?” my roommate said as the score swelled. “I hate this kind of movie.”

Thompson on Hollywood

He’s right on both counts: Rebecca is not for everyone — it’s old-fashioned, melodramatic, inconsistent, formalist. Yet the suggestion that the 1940 Best Picture winner is anything less than a classic tends to piss me off. As in much of his work, Hitchcock takes pedestrian source material (Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name) and makes it bold as brass. This is a big, lush picture, moving through as many moods as Franz Waxman’s score — sunniness, soaring romance, misery, terror — before asserting itself as a portrait of obsession.

Rebecca stars Joan Fontaine as the unnamed paid companion of an older woman, and Laurence Olivier as Max de Winter, the aristocratic widower who sweeps her away to married life at an estate called Manderley. Their arrival signals one of many tonal shifts; the light goes from sparkling to textured, sometimes matte and sometimes sheen, scampering across the walls like a ghost. As it happens, Max’s dead wife, Rebecca, isn’t quite departed. Her specter hangs over the proceedings in ever-darkening rumbles, like a shattered teacup or the telephone’s sudden bleat. All the while the new bride bumbles and trips her way around, Fontaine cutting through the slapstick with a face full of anxiety and Olivier throwing boorish jabs at all the wrong moments.

The film’s most glaring flaw may be that it leaves the reasons why they’re together unexplored (why isn’t she running for the hills?), but this is a diversion. The real relationship is the fearsome triangle of our heroine, Rebecca, and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Played by Judith Anderson as though channeling Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Danvers is an indelible villain — just try not to get the creeps as she shows the shaking Fontaine Rebecca’s mausoleum of a bedroom, brushing the girl’s face with an old fur and lovingly patting the dead woman’s underwear.

From here the two face off in a thrilling psychological battle. The new bride directs the housekeeper to dump Rebecca’s old crap (“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she says); Danvers exacts retribution by tricking her prey into a dress matching one Rebecca wore. The sight sends Max into a rage and Fontaine into gag-sobs, which Danvers capitalizes on by opening the window and hissing out what amounts to a witch’s spell, capturing Fontaine in a trance: “You've nothing to live for really, have you?” If Rebecca , eccentric and exciting, is “this kind of movie,” that's fine by me: like Mrs. Danvers’ chilly whisper, it’s almost a form of magic.

Though less fantastical, Jane Eyre is still a tough nut to crack. Twenty or so screen adaptations precede Cary Fukunaga’s stab at Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. But with talented Mia Wasikowska in the lead, he captures Eyre's balance of propriety and vigor. Even as a child (Amelia Clarkson), Jane is a bit of a pill. When asked how she’ll avoid Hell, she responds that she just needs not to die. It’s a modern take on a character played by everyone from Fontaine to Susannah York to Charlotte Gainsbourg — this Jane’s words go for blood. “I’m not afraid,” she tells Rochester (Michael Fassbender) when he tries to corner her in the firelight. “I’ve simply no wish to talk nonsense.”

Most versions have keyed in on the back-and-forth between Jane, strong-willed and plain, and Rochester, arrogant, powerful, and ugly, perhaps too much so. The average Jane Eyre is mincing romance with chiaroscuro lighting and Gothic arches, leaving out all the bits that make the novel innovative. Fukunaga’s vision takes the same focus but a different tack, though it starts with a little cheating: Wasikowska is no more plain, Fassbender no more ugly, than a pair of matinee idols. I’m not a proponent of the “faithful” adaptation (if you want faithful, read the book), so this is all to the good — it ups the erotic ante. Witness Jane, woken by a bump in the night, discovering Rochester’s room on fire; in the madly sexy aftermath, he takes her hand and the space between them evaporates, until at the last moment she pulls back. It’s maybe two minutes but it feels like ten, and I could have watched it for hours — Fassbender is roguish and handsome, hair falling across his forehead; Wasikowska is small, and holds her own through linguistic guile. It’s heavenly.

This is, as you might expect, a difficult book to film, what with the terrible childhood and the potential mistress and the harsh secrets. What Fukunaga does well — sexual tension, misty moor-scapes, shadow houses where flames hide from darkness — he does impeccably. Certain of the other elements, like the wan interlude with St. John Rivers (boring!), seem shoved into what’s left, there to get us from Point A to Point B. What tips the balance is Wasikowska as Jane, fierce but never vicious, staring down a mean life and making something of it. She is not a “machine without feelings,” as she says in her most powerful monologue — she’s a force to be reckoned with, and Jane Eyre is all the better for it.

[ Rebecca photo courtesy fanpop.com, trailer courtesy The Film Archive; Jane Eyre trailer courtesy Focus Features.]

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