Shifting Sympathies in Rebecca


by Ellery LeSueur

Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is a chilling account of a naive woman haunted by the ghost of her husband’s dead first wife. After being initially drawn to the vulnerability of Joan Fontaine’s character through the effects of production design and the character’s actions, I found my sympathies extend to Laurence Olivier’s previously cold character, Maxim de Winter, later in the film.

At first, the vulnerability of Joan Fontaine’s character made her sympathetic. Her character (whose given name is never revealed, so we are forced to simply call her “Mrs. de Winter”) is portrayed as susceptible to oppression when we see her willingly obey barking orders from the outlandish socialite Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). A stark contrast is painted between Fontaine’s character and Mrs. Van Hopper in the way that Hitchcock dresses them both. While out for tea, Mrs. Van Hopper is seen wearing a rich, glittering black gown while Fontaine’s humility and meekness is expressed through the soft, modest choice of a tiered grey day-dress and a simple string of pearls. Mrs. Van Hopper is dressed more expensively, but Fontaine’s character exudes a quiet, effortless elegance in spite of her self-conscious manner that pitted me against her overbearing boss. Additionally, her initial interactions with Laurence Olivier’s character, Maxim de Winter, made me sympathize with Fontaine’s character. I got the impression from the way Maxim invites her opinion when he sits down at tea and how he insists upon sharing breakfast with her that Olivier’s character is allowing her into his world. Fontaine reacts to this kind of attention from Maxim as a privilege she cannot abandon, even when Mrs. Van Hopper demands she leave Monte Carlo with her. Olivier’s marriage proposal confirmed my initial reaction to his character; when he said, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” to Fontaine, then immediately made a passing remark about the food that has been brought to his room. As a man who appeared to be a hardened man with mysterious motives, I found myself estranged from Maxim. Fontaine seems equally surprised at this proposal, a kind of in-story representative of the audience’s astonishment. Because of the way her character is used as the nervous surrogate for the audience, we identify with her reeling reactions to the fast-moving world surrounding her as we find ourselves reacting to them at the same time and in similar emotional ways.

As the film progresses into the intrigue regarding Mr. de Winter’s former wife, Rebecca, many of the sets made me feel the weight of the past pressing down on Fontaine’s character (now the second Mrs. de Winter). The way that the banquet hall towers over her makes her look very small in the face of this new grandiose lifestyle. One set that especially caught my attention was the Morning Room, where Rebecca used to always answer her letters. I couldn’t help but think that the name of the “morning room” brings to mind the homophone word, “mourning”, and reinforces the idea that everyone and everything at Manderley is obsessed with Rebecca’s death. In addition to these sets, the actions of characters influenced my reactions to the narrative direction of the film. Mrs. Van Hopper’s fervent and vocal disbelief that Fontaine would be able to make an appropriate Mrs. de Winter for Maxim only made me root more passionately for her success. In the same way, Mrs. Danvers’ sabotage of Mrs. de Winter’s dress choice at the costume ball only made me further determined that Fontaine’s character must somehow beat all of the odds and prevail in her role as mistress of Manderley despite all of the doubts.

As the film progressed, I found my sympathies shifted dramatically in favor of Maxim. Up until the confrontation between Maxim and Fontaine’s character in Rebecca’s boathouse near the end of the film, he had been cold and distant. Laurence Olivier’s character only became attractive to me after the confession to his wife of what really happened between him and Rebecca. The turmoil he had been experiencing regarding the truth about Rebecca excused him from his past behavior when he says to Fontaine, “Her shadow has been between us all the time, keeping us from one another.” My sympathies shifted when I saw the change from what appeared to be a cold, hardened man to that of a tortured soul, someone who was wanting to give his love but couldn’t because of the haunting past circumstances. This is when I forgave Maxim for all the demands and coldness he had shown toward the second Mrs. de Winter. Interestingly, the honesty that Oliver’s character shows seems to diffuse the ghost of Rebecca that was between them. The first kiss we see between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter only happens after his confession and happens in front of a grand fire in front of the fireplace. It’s as if the fire stands as a signal that their relationship has warmed and the kiss shows us that their intimacy is now genuine on both sides, whereas before we weren’t sure of Maxim’s true feelings.

Overall, Rebecca seemed to build toward the desired end of not just making the audience like both of these characters, but more so, liking them both together as a couple. At the end of the film, I found myself rooting for both of the lead characters of Maxim and Mrs. de Winter, no longer separately but as a couple. The scene of Maxim giving a testimony in court really showcased how involving this film was from an emotional standpoint. Before Maxim goes to give the testimony, and just before the suggestion that the boat may have been scuttled, Maxim and Fontaine’s characters exchange a look of reassurance and understanding which the audience is shown through a set of close-ups. In that moment, I felt the intimacy between the characters and that emotional link made me want the couple to triumph in the face of this adversity. The film seems to regard the shifting of sympathies as a way to engage the audience and invest them in the story at hand. In the future, this idea of shifting sympathies is something I will look for in other Hitchcock works.

Ellery LeSueur is a writer and cinephile from Chicago, Illinois. Fascinated by American cinema history, her favorite Hitchcock films are Psycho, Spellbound, and The 39 Steps.


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