In transposing Rebecca, notice how Hitchcock’s camera attends to shadows – bisecting faces and bruising frames – to approximate du Maurier’s disorienting syntax and looming dread. Or watch as his unfixed lens itself floats and drifts through the set’s vast spaces, insinuating viewers into the same unsettled, unmoored state as the uncertain protagonist. Wheatley’s emptied re-creation uncritically celebrates these ideological superstructures purely as aesthetic spectacles – distracted by the signifiers, he ignores the significance. His film is beautiful – and hollow. If Hitchcock is all mist and shadow, Wheatley is champagne and sunshine.
* * *
In the critical scene of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938),1 the nameless protagonist and guileless narrator, and second Mrs. de Winter, dresses herself in borrowed robes. In an attempt to replicate her husband’s own aristocratic heritage, and reinforce her own position within that lineage, Mrs. de Winter – seeking the devious guidance of house manager Mrs. Danvers and sketching outfits from the manor’s ancestral portraits – requests a perfect reproduction of a striking white gown previously worn by Caroline de Winter, a great-great-aunt of her new husband, Maxim de Winter.
Her own identity unstable and uncertain, Mrs. de Winter stitches herself into a phantasmic simulacrum of antecedents and predecessors. Sheathed in imitation silks, this unmoored, unnamed spouse celebrates, upon looking in the mirror, that her “own dull personality was submerged at last,” that she “did not recognize the face” in the glass, that she “looked quite attractive” – “not me at all” but “someone much more interesting, more vivid and alive.” So resplendently shrouded in nostalgia, the narrator imagines her own identity dissolving into the past, into the house and into its heritage: “It was as if the house remembered other days, long, long ago.”
But replicating the past is a dangerous project, and this brazen act of mimesis – of attempting to reestablish and reinforce her own identity and positionality through the performance of another’s – collapses, tragically and spectacularly. In a “fancy ball” that she hopes will function as a surrogate for her overhasty and still-recent wedding, du Maurier’s ingenuous protagonist, wrapped in de Winter white and noting “the same stifled feeling” as her wedding day, requests to be introduced to the assembled guests as Caroline de Winter. A festively costumed coterie has gathered in the family’s ancestral estate of Manderley for this annual dress ball formerly arranged by the late Rebecca, the eponymous and ubiquitous first wife of de Winter, who remains, posthumously and potently, the reigning spirit of Manderley. Descending the stair “like the girl in the picture,” this would-be Caroline enters not to adulatory surprise but to the total, unsettling silence of the uncanny: “Nobody clapped, nobody moved. They all stared at me like dumb things” – the guests, standing “like dummies, like people in a trance,” stared “with dull blank faces.” “Stunned and stupid like a hunted thing,” the costumed bride retreats in shame and bewilderment, “tripping, stumbling over the flounces” of her ball gown.
As she later discovers, the second Mrs. de Winter was not the first to reproduce this signifying gown. While Caroline de Winter may once have worn this dress, it was Maxim’s indelible first wife, Rebecca, who wore it best – and who still stalks the corridors of Maxim’s consciousness, and Manderley’s. And in her process of adapting this piece, the second interlocutor fails to escape the influence of its most famous interpreter. In her attempt to imitate Caroline, the narrator only encounters – and eerily embodies – the haunting presence of Rebecca. Such is the hermeneutical and existential crisis of Rebecca – and the aesthetic and interpretive crisis of its adaptation. Rebecca always-already enacts its own anxieties of influence and suspicions of succession within itself. One cannot simply remake this old gown again.
All of which renders Ben Wheatley’s slicked and smoothed remake of Rebecca (2020)2 a rather haunted project from its conception. Strutting into the text as if it were itself a period ball, a stylish costume romance for the Netflix set, Wheatley, a shallow reader of du Maurier, cannot help but trip and stumble into the same tautological trap as the second Mrs. de Winter – his cheerful, unfocused attempt is immediately overmatched by the brooding ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, whose own 1940 “picturization,”3 a tensed and tempestuous Gothic masterpiece, resists adaptation. Like Rebecca herself, Hitchcock’s Rebecca refuses imitation.4
To be fair, Wheatley does try to make it new. His colorful, costume-drama remake, with its warm, sun-soaked aesthetic and cool, high-style actors, seeks to enkindle a sexy, post-Hays5 heat within du Maurier’s chilled romance and attempts to engender a topical, post-Friedan reckoning with the text’s complicated and unsettled exploration of female identity, intimacy, and agency. Wheatley wraps Armie Hammer’s warmed-over Maxim de Winter in mango linen and offers Lily James’ ingenuous protagonist blooms to pluck, reins to pull, and narrative threads to unravel – and seemingly more independence and ingenuity than Hitchcock’s fluttering Joan Fontaine.
And Wheatley chooses fabulous source material. Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel is an immersive, intricately plotted psychological study that immediately submerges readers into the narrator’s active and anxious imagination, her unsteady voice and frayed perception unspooling into paranoid fringes of experience and inference. Playing with generic conventions of the romance, the fairy tale, and the Gothic, du Maurier’s nameless protagonist meets the infamous widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, where she is employed as a “companion” to the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper. After a hastily arranged, off-stage marriage, she follows him back to Manderley, his celebrated English estate still shadowed by the memory Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca.
With the narrator’s perfect first line – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – the novel plunges into a turbulent nightmare of the unconscious, with all of its attendant Freudian undertows: Rebecca is a mad Gothic masterpiece. And with overtures toward Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), Rebecca, a ghost story in search of its ghosts, interrogates and undermines our cultural codification of heteronormative domesticity and ancestral inheritance. Furthermore, it’s a text that dramatizes and thematizes its suspicions of succession – Rebecca disrupts and forecloses cultural and creative strategies of interpretation, adaptation, and displacement. And at the tangle of all of these textual threads lurks Rebecca: the hermeneutic phantom who haunts the mind, the marriage, and the manor.
But Wheatley overlooks these complications. His confused attempt to retrofit contemporary sensibilities onto du Maurier’s pre-war Romance smothers the novel’s own trenchant voice and unquiet imagination, and Wheatley’s intense desire to read Rebecca as a romantic thriller forces him to misread the novel and disregard Hitchcock’s film. At the same time, it’s difficult for Wheatley to honor du Maurier’s skepticism of fetishizing the past while producing a film so lushly drenched in period nostalgia. Hitchcock’s Rebecca, for instance, is a contemporary film – representing its own time, however fraught – whereas Wheatley’s lavish and sharply tailored ’38, missing the point, conjures a romanticized historical past to enchant a twenty-first century audience.
And in his alleged effort to repress Hitchcock, he further forgets his text. Wheatley has claimed that while du Maurier’s “original source material” interests him, he planned to ignore Hitchcock’s masterpiece. While he concedes that Rebecca “has dark elements” as well as “a psychological, haunting story within it,” he sought to “make something with more love,” insisting that the “main thing” of Rebecca is “two people in love.”6 And, while Wheatley does summon up a sandy, seaside love scene7 (in addition to a salacious sailboat tryst spotted, Rear Window-style, through a tourist viewfinder), and while he does overwrite genre conventions of the contemporary romantic thriller onto Hitchcock’s sublime Gothic romance, and while he does attribute a latent gumshoe sensibility, a snappy savoir faire, to the second Mrs. de Winter, it’s a stretch, even so, to understand the “main thing” of Rebecca to be a love story.8
Because at its heart, Rebecca is a horror story. In one sense, the trouble of the novel lies in the anxiety of female disempowerment and erotic succession: the second Mrs. de Winter, her only name her husband’s, is plucked from her life into another’s, cast in a role she cannot perform, with a script she cannot read, in a set she cannot navigate, within a manor darkened by memories she cannot trace, contending with a presence she cannot know nor best. She finds shades of Rebecca throughout the manor – her hairbrushes, her perfumes, her clothing, her flowers, her furniture, her handwriting, and her terrifying sign: her imposing initial, her spidery and calligraphic “R,” inscribed throughout the space. Everywhere, her memory. Everywhere, her ghost. And throughout, she is pursued by the malevolent Mrs. Danvers.
To his credit, Wheatley appreciates this romantic insecurity of a second spouse, and his film intensifies the uncanniness of his protagonist’s uncertainty. In one domestic scene, Maxim’s grandmother dismisses Lily Jame’ de Winter as a sinister interloper (one of many unfavorable comparisons to Rebecca); in a surreal nightmare sequence, she sinks into a corridor wanton with Rebecca’s overgrown rhododendrons; in a later moment, she collapses in a hall of mirrors, disoriented and trapped, her own self-estranged terror gazing back from the glass. But at some point, Wheatley stops reading.
Here, however, Hitchcock further focuses his lens: his Rebecca locates the protagonist’s existential anxiety in the governing cultural frameworks themselves – heteronormative coupling and contracts, the imprisoning cult of domesticity, the gaslighting and paranoia of patriarchal control, and the individual and societal processes of aristocratic preservation and heritage – the precarious conspiracies of gender and class are informed and undermined by ubiquitous and uncanny dread. In transposing Rebecca, notice how Hitchcock’s camera attends to shadows – bisecting faces and bruising frames – to approximate du Maurier’s disorienting syntax and looming dread. Or watch as his unfixed lens itself floats and drifts through the set’s vast spaces, insinuating viewers into the same unsettled, unmoored state as the uncertain protagonist. Wheatley’s emptied re-creation uncritically celebrates these ideological superstructures purely as aesthetic spectacles – distracted by the signifiers, he ignores the significance. His film is beautiful – and hollow. If Hitchcock is all mist and shadow, Wheatley is champagne and sunshine.
Most acutely, however, du Maurier’s text locates its horror not only in the romance itself, not only in Rebecca herself, and not only in the gendered dynamics themselves, but also in our collective attempts to manage – either through repression, preservation, reproduction, or destruction – our individual, cultural, and historical trauma. The past continually surges into the present, flooding the consciousness with guilt, shame, and anxiety. And, of course, Rebecca herself does return, her body delivered from the sunken tomb of her scuttled ship – the battered Je Reviens (Freudian, French: “I shall return”). It is Rebecca’s psychoanalytic obsession, this chilling presence and horrifying return of the repressed, to which Hitchcock most attends – and which Wheatley most ignores.
All of which rather complicates Wheatley’s naive attempt to remake Rebecca. How can one adapt a text that obsessively stages its own suspicion of succession? A text that uncannily enacts its own anxieties of influence and ruthlessly critiques ideologies of inheritance and processes of reproduction? That disrupts its own dynamics of displacement and eternally returns to haunt its subsequent interpreters and imitators? Wheatley wraps himself in Hitchcock’s robes and is stunned to find his ghost.
The morning after the dreadful ball, a dejected second Mrs. de Winter reflects that she feels “haunted” by her predecessor’s ghost, that she “could not fight the dead,” that the influence of Rebecca “was too strong.” She encounters Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s preserved west wing with a “queer ecstatic smile” stretched over her “skull’s face.” In a “mad, unreal” sequence, Mrs. Danvers castigates the second Mrs. de Winter for seeking “to take Mrs. de Winter’s place” – for trying to “sit in her place, walk in her footsteps, touch the things that were hers.” Rejecting the subsequent spouse’s attempt to succeed her predecessor, Mrs. Danvers insists that Rebecca, “even if she is dead,” remains “the real Mrs. de Winter” – that the second spouse is merely “the shadow and the ghost.” In her attempt to displace her iconic predecessor, Mrs. de Winter instead finds herself unmoored, unnamed, unreal, a pale ghost haunting Manderley. She cannot outdo the original.
In the end it is Mrs. Danvers, her obsessive instinct of preservation warping toward destruction, who sets fire to Manderley. Such a haunted old place, it has to go. Rebecca – both du Maurier’s and Hitchcock’s – concludes by burning down the house. Wheatley closes his film with a saccharine coda that depicts the besotted de Winters in bed in Cairo, but Hitchcock’s refusal to represent such marital bliss, or any post-Manderley future at all, underscore the Master’s own cinematics of suspicion. Her gowns and her grounds reduced to ash, there can be no life, no love, no time after Rebecca. “We can never go back again, that much is certain,” the narrator claims, early in the novel. And after Hitchcock, we can never return to Manderley again, either. That much, now, is certain.
Daphne du Maurier herself, though, does summon an alternative strategy of Manderley’s destruction in a way that gestures toward a more creative and expansive post-Rebecca future than Danvers’ cathartic burning – a liberated imaginary that surpasses the visions of both Hitchcock and Wheatley. About midway through the novel, during the morning after the ball gown scene, the second wife converses with some picnicking neighbors, along with a captain in the coast guard, on the seaside. A ship has wrecked – capsized, we learn, upon Rebecca’s own scuttled ship, her threat always lurking just beneath the darkened surface of things. They watch a diver descend repeatedly into the bay; diving into the wreck, he will soon recover Rebecca’s body. This fascinating scene, ignored by both Hitchcock and Wheatley, offers a refreshing moment of stasis and reprieve amidst the escalating, onrushing dread of the novel.
Another nameless woman, another wife – a mother with her son – comments on the “nice-looking woods” above the cliffs and concedes, resignedly, that they must be private. Striking a neighborly note of sudden intimacy, this woman imagines a future in which “all these big estates will be chopped up in time and bungalows built” and admits that she “wouldn’t mind a nice little bungalow up here facing the sea.” This intriguing scene gestures toward an alternative, speculative lineage in which that haunted landscape and its dreadful manor, instead of burning and collapsing into the encroaching wilderness, is instead dismantled and opened to the broader population – an estate emptied of its aristocracy and returned to the people. Within a novel obsessed with the anxieties of influence and inheritance, du Maurier seems to break that signifying chain and suggest one potentially unfettered future – one with no space for Rebecca’s irrepressible ghost or Maxim’s ghostly repression, unburdened by the pressures of domestic or aesthetic succession, fortified against the overbearing past continually irrupting and undermining the present. A space open to many futures, welcoming of many voices and selves and to a multitude of stories and modes of representation. A community, in other words.
The second Mrs. de Winter, again forgetting herself, wishes that she “could lose [her] own identity and join them. Eat hardboiled eggs and potted meat sandwiches, laugh rather loudly, enter their conversation, and then wander back with them during the afternoon” – some sort of paradise indeed. Her language here echoes her identity dissolution in the ball scene – conceived, in this moment, not as a form of nostalgic disintegration but as a form of proleptic evaporation and prospective expansion, an exhilarating sense of self-becoming. Whereas she had once dreamed of dissolving into that patriarchal estate and its haunted narrative inheritance, here she hopes for ascension into a new community and its familial, friendly charms. There are other ways, du Maurier seems to suggest, that we can slip the stubborn bonds of the past. Not all futures must be haunted.
This fantasy is, however, short-lived, as the mother snaps shut her reverie: “I don’t know that I’d care for this part of the world in the winter, though.” Too harsh, too harrowing. Too haunted, surely. She gathers up her son and heads home. In a short time, Rebecca’s body will be found, the past again will flood the present, the ghost again will stalk the living. And Manderley soon will burn.
* * *
All images are screenshots from Rebecca (both Hitchcock’s and Wheatley’s).
- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (New York: Harper, 2006). [↩]
- Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley (2020; Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2020), Netflix. [↩]
- That Hitchcock identifies his project not as an adaptation but by the rather quaint “picturization” seems significant: as if, by avoiding the logic of adaptation, he can escape the anxiety of influence that the text itself raises. [↩]
- Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1940; Beverly Hills, CA: Criterion Collection, 2017), DVD. [↩]
- Informally known as the Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code pressured American filmmakers between the mid-’30s and late ’60s against producing films that “will lower the moral standards” of the audience (Bob Mondello, “Remembering Hollywood’s Hays Code, 40 Years On, NPR, August 8, 2008”). [↩]
- Ben Travis, “Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca ‘Isn’t a Hitchcock Remake’, Says the Director,” Empire Online, September 3, 2020. [↩]
- Neither du Maurier nor Hitchcock represents or implies any sexual relationship between the couple – the novel’s dread orbits around this erotic lack at its center – the novel’s insistence on their romantic chilliness is integral to the second Ms. de Winter’s identity collapse. Wheatley’s lascivious urge to represent the physical intimacy of the couple strikes as one of several discordant notes early in the film. [↩]
- Or, at least, Rebecca’s more interesting love story might not be that which most interests Wheatley – the implied intimacy between Rebecca and her assistant, Mrs. Danvers, intensified by Hitchcock, provides much of the novel’s tension and functions as one of several powerful queer undercurrents within the text. [↩]