Let’s talk about Rebecca (2020) and why the women characters, for whom I wanted to watch the film, leave me wanting more.
Rebecca, the 1938 gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, has what are often considered the greatest opening lines in literature. And the latest film adaptation of the novel, directed by Ben Wheatley, and stars Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas, begins with those lines.
There is a lot to say about it, so let’s just dive right into the thick of it.
Spoiler alert: I talk about everything in the film, including all the plot twists, so if you haven’t watched it and care about spoilers, I recommend watching the movie first.
Plotting Rebecca: Hitting All The Points
The story follows the narrator, an unnamed young woman, who marries a wealthy, older widower Maxim de Winter. Only to discover that he and his household – Manderley – are haunted by the memory of his first wife.
The wife, who has apparently drowned to death before the story begins, assumes the title of the book — Rebecca. De Winter cannot bear to speak of his dead wife. Out of love, our narrator thinks.
De Winter is introduced as the owner of Manderley. “It’s more than a house. It’s my life,” he says. Everything we know of his character is related to Manderley.
In any case, on de Winter’s rambling estate, the narrator and the audience finally come face to face with Rebecca. We see her through the eyes of her obsessive housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who looks down her nose at the new Mrs. de Winter, and claims that Rebecca is still present in the house.
She is a ghost; not literal, but figurative. And our narrator feels as though she might never match up to her predecessor. Her beauty. Her marriage. Her esteem.
Rebecca, we learn later, isn’t the perfect woman who was beloved to her husband. The narrator instead discovers that she was a promiscuous woman, making a cuckold (I hate that word) of her far too traditional husband.
Oh, and he kills her.
There are, of course, all those things that make up a gothic tale. Hauntings, boatwrecks, betrayal, ominous thunderstorms, and of course, murder. In the final scenes, Manderley burns down as it wrestles against the climax of the plot.
More importantly, the story carries within its pages the friction of the past rubbing up against the present, the invisible violence of powerful men, and most importantly, the lives and mindscapes of women.
There are women of all kinds. Timid women who discover their strength and learn to raise their voices. Troubled, obsessive women who gaslight others. Complex, layered, ‘bad’ women who crave power. And ghost women.
The Women Of Rebecca
The women of Rebecca are by far the strongest points of the story. I don’t mean to say they are empowered or Strong Female Characters™, but that they are well-written ones. Du Maurier was indeed an excellent writer of women.
However, miscast actors and a rushed screenplay makes the new movie not nearly as captivating as the novel.
But what is interesting to me is du Maurier’s storytelling. In it, from the very beginning, all the female characters in the film compare the narrator to Rebecca in some way or another.
Let’s explore how that dynamic brings together the central conflict of the story.
The Narrator’s Employer
The narrator is introduced as a lady’s companion, “staff!” as she is labelled emphatically by her employer. The narrator’s job is looked down upon, and she does it because she needs the money, and for the travel. However, she isn’t treated with respect.
Her employer also asserts that she is not a good match for Mr. de WInter, whom our narrator seems to find attractive. In fact, her employer is the one who introduces us to the spectre of Rebecca — “He loved her!”
She does so in the company of friends, and this is our first introduction to women tearing one another down. The narrator hears her employer disparaging her to these friends.
The idle gossip of wealthier, more privileged women is a hum that slowly becomes a chorus, and eventually a crescendo, as the movie inches forward.
When the narrator’s employer finds out that she is to marry into ‘elevated’ circumstances, she slutshames her. She goes on to say that de Winter is marrying her only because he doesn’t want to live with the ghost of Rebecca.
Mrs. Danvers, The Housekeeper At Manderley
Danvers introduces the grand estate to our narrator, dropping small hints that she is not very happy with a former lady’s companion as the mistress of the house. In Danvers’ presence, the narrator learns that she knows very little about the man she married.
Danvers subtly compares her to Rebecca as well, talking fondly of the former mistress, and of her time at Manderley. It is made clear that the housekeeper is obsessed with Rebecca, a girl she saw grow up and become her own woman.
Danvers also has no other life apart from her work, which gives her some authority, but her authority seems to largely stem from her closeness to Rebecca.
Danvers does not see her charge’s cruel streak as cause for concern. Instead, she wishes to hurt the narrator because she takes the side of the man who killed her.
She accuses the narrator of taking her former mistress’ husband and name, claiming, “This wasn’t just a job for me, Rebecca was my life!”.
Danvers dies in the same waters as her mistress, having burnt Manderley down, killing the only thing de Winter truly loved in exchange for him killing the only thing she did.
(Continue reading below.)
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The Two Mrs. de Winters
Rebecca and the narrator are sharply contrasted. The former has no self-assurance, while the latter has enough for a battalion of women.
The first time our narrator truly gets a chance to speak to Mr. de Winter alone, she claims, “I’ve never spoken so much in my life!” By this time, through the aforementioned employer’s outspokenness and de Winter’s silence, Rebecca’s presence has spoken more already.
The narrator’s painful juxtaposition against Rebecca is further highlighted when she has to move into a house filled with handkerchiefs and diaries and guestbooks monogrammed with Rebecca’s initials. Her husband’s increasingly distant behaviour and random disappearances make her feel isolated.
Faced with persistent, painful comparisons, we finally see her take her first walk with conviction… straight into an obsession with Rebecca.
To me, this dynamic is fascinating, but it only shows up half-baked on film. The adaptation is a lacklustre retelling of the original tale. The only stand-out element is how they reveal Rebecca’s character. You probably know everything about the narrator halfway through, but Rebecca we learn about slowly. Well into the climax, we are still learning about her.
There are so many shades to her character, which is obviously why everyone in the story is obsessed with her. Even De Winter’s sister, although not unkindly, says: “She was one of those bloody annoying people. Irresistible to everybody. Us mere mortals couldn’t hope to compete.”
Which makes me wonder: why in 2020 have we gotten an unnecessary remake, when we could have had a movie focussed on Rebecca herself?
And if everyone is so very interested in her, then so am I. Tell me more about her, this complex and layered woman with more depth to her than the narrator could ever lay claim to in this film.
Rebecca And The Audacity Of Mr. de Winter
Rebecca, the book, was a reflection of du Maurier’s own tryst with insecurities and jealousies. As an author, she has never pretended to write perfect women, and her own storytelling conveys this. In fact, she was shocked to learn that people thought Rebecca a romance!
Yet somehow, this warped interpretation of the original text makes it into the 2020 film adaptation. The visuals and screenplay manipulate us into believing that Rebecca deserves to be dead, and that the narrator helping her husband conceal his actions is a love story.
Mr. de Winter Is Not Our Hero
De Winter, whose motivations we do not know much of until we find out he killed his wife, is a thoroughly orthodox man.
Early on in the film, he claims that Manderley has been “passed from father to son and father to son for centuries.” If he dies without an heir, it will go to his sister, who has two “fine boys”, but they’re not de Winters, you see?
And this patriarchal notion is what causes the conflict of the story, really. He won’t tell the narrator the truth about Rebecca, leaving her to be gaslit and tortured by Danvers. His own delusions lead him to kill his wife instead of divorcing her.
Look, I am not out here claiming moral high ground for Rebecca, or trying to justify adultery. But the fact that de Winter sees Manderley as his life – a life passed on from patriarch to next patriarch – is telling.
And it makes him a murderer when we finally find out that Rebecca died because she announced that she was pregnant with another man’s child, and dared (claimed, anyway) to disrupt the patriarchal inheritance of Manderley. She manipulated her husband to the last, knowing he was obsessed with his lineage and his estate, forcing him to kill her so she wouldn’t suffer.
The Narrator Is Also Not Our Hero
When our narrator finds out her husband hated Rebecca, her obsession with Rebecca pivots. She goes from a woman without much gumption or self-confidence, to a spy sneaking into Rebecca’s doctor’s office to get her husband acquitted of the murder he did commit.
All of this is framed as romantic, by the way, not the jealous motivations of a woman who wishes to protect a murderer!
Anyway, here is when we learn that Rebecca had cancer and a malformed uterus. Very on the nose, but the story punishes her for being promiscuous by giving her a biological punishment for her non-womanly urges.
This is also where Mr. de Winter truly earns my dislike, when he says, “Do you know what I hate the most about Rebecca? She took that funny, young, lost look from you.”
Basically, he wanted her because she was ‘uncorrupted’, he loved the narrator for her virginal nature. He hates that she has changed, as though she would have stayed an innocent miss all her life!
Bold words from a man who killed a woman because he thought she would interrupt his lineage. His new wife’s innocence is hardly cause of concern. To make this worse, the narrator’s liberation in the final scene was shown as her smoking and drinking and being sexually bold.
Honestly, that’s such a tired trope that I groaned out loud.
Closing Remarks About Rebecca (2020)
As the story draws to its startling revelation, we get the first stirrings of de Maurier’s complex insight into women and their place in this world.
It happens when Danvers (flustered for the first time) asserts, “Rebecca despised you all, men. You were only playthings to her. And why shouldn’t a woman amuse herself? She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her!”
And I understand that sentiment. How many women have been shamed for their desires? And do they not always face punishment, violence, and even death for them?
Maybe Rebecca ought to have been a less cruel woman, but maybe the world ought to be a less cruel place for women too. Maybe de Winter ought to have not been such a patriarch.
As for Manderley… once Danvers figures out that de Winter will never be punished by the law for the death of Rebecca, she burns the house down.
And it is not just the home that is reduced to ashes. It is the driving force behind the misogyny in the story that is razed to the ground.
Gothic novels, and their successors, have long been the domain of women, both as authors and readers. They reveal a lot about what women are told to desire, and what they truly do wish for — love, power, being valued, having the last word. And let’s not pretend like Rebecca didn’t get the last word, or didn’t control her own life and even her own death.
Rebecca is not a feminist story by any means, but it is a story about women, and as always, I wish for it to be directed by a woman. The 2020 adaptation does not do justice to du Maurier’s novel.
It fails to capture the slow burn of the original story. It is not even a very competent standalone film. The tone is confused, the camera work odd, and none of the characters developed enough to really allow us to root for anyone.
For a story about women’s motivations, it really does bungle it up. Why does the narrator become strong only in the face of a crisis? Why does Rebecca do what she does? Why is Danvers truly obsessed with her, apart from having seen her grow up?
Perhaps Rebecca isn’t a story made for us to root for Rebecca herself, but I am definitely rooting for a movie that gives us more of her.
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