The Second Mrs. de Winter


On the way to my study I pass a window that sits over the landing at the top of the stairs of my house. Through this window I see the vibrant shapes of workers in high-visibility gear, standing on the roof of a nearly finished apartment building. Naked pine beams and the fresh glint of the windows encasing the adjacent, recently completed apartment blocks finish the scene. Through another window I hear a currawong. Someone once told me that currawongs learn, elaborate upon and pass down variations of their song over close-knit generations. Since the flocks are territorial, occupying a relatively small terrain, butcherbirds across the southern regions of Australia will have slightly different melodies and rhythms, depending upon where you happen to find them. Their song is the sound signature of their home.

I think the currawong outside my study window is lost. He has a distinctive long call, with the decorative third trill of his song recalling to me the butcherbirds of the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. I remember hearing this call often through a friend’s apartment window in the late afternoons I sometimes spent with him there, both of us sleepy in bed as the darkness came. The harbour, which was very close to the apartment, always seemed to resist this darkness, the masts of the yachts and leisure crafts at the little dock down the street knocking in the breeze, clamouring against the night, leaning to the last shadows. I wonder how the butcherbird outside my study window came to be here today, some 878 kilometres away from that sunny city. They’re not travelling birds. I wonder, what is he looking for? How much does he miss that famous harbour?

Windows are a crucial device in the Hitchcock film Rebecca. Think of the housekeeper of the fantastical estate of Mandalay, Mrs. Danvers. I watched Rebecca again the other month with my best friend. ‘What a fucking bitch!’ she exhaled, expressing our mutual awe at the blatant evil of Danvers, grim and camply loyal to the eponymous dead mistress of the house, the first Mrs. de Winter, when the second Mrs. de Winter is brought to stay. Joan Fontaine delivers the second Mrs. de Winter with flawless, fresh-faced naiveté: ‘I hope you haven’t gone to too much trouble,’ she falters, overcome by converging shames (class shame, sexual shame, feminine inadequacy) as Danvers tells her about the house. ‘Of course there’s no view of the sea from your room. The only view of the sea is from the west wing.’ Danvers pauses; there is already menace in the air. ‘The room is very charming and I’m sure I’ll be comfortable,’ rushes the second Mrs. de Winter. ‘If you want anything done, made, you have only to tell me,’ returns Danvers, the deadpan barb inevitable as a crow’s.

I have always noticed something about Rebecca but I’ve never had a place to share the observation until now. Here it is. Mothers really love this movie. My mother loves it, my best friend’s mother loves it, my horrible ex-‘s mother loves it, my other ex-‘s mother loves it, a friend of any random friend’s mother loves it; I know this isn’t strong evidence, but really, I feel like any mother I’ve ever spoken to about this movie has sighed a Gail Jones sigh about it. ‘Rebecca!‘ they’ll swoon. Try this next time you’re with a mother. Maybe there ought to be a secret society built around this secret favourite film. I’ve found it strange that this category of person (because let’s face it, nothing is so much of a category of person as a mother) generally associated with benign qualities including (quite unfairly) aesthetic innocence (i.e. underdeveloped, vanilla taste) could be so drawn to something as demented as Rebecca, which I think is Hitchcock’s most terrifying, satisfying horror. Now listen to this. I always quite liked Rebecca before I had my own child; but the other month, when I watched it again (on… Valentine’s Day? Yeah, wow, Valentine’s Day) I loved it. I think I loved (not liked, but loved) it as a mother, or because I am a mother. I recognise the thought, yet the thought confuses me. I know this is not scientific… But, um, perhaps I’ll work on the science. Shall I?

‘I came here when the first Mrs. de Winter was a bride,’ says Danvers, proudly. The camera rolls in as the music crescendoes, leading to the shot that closes the scene: Danvers a smiling blackguard against a rain-splattered window. Windows can’t be full of anything but light, and in this way they are magical. There is strong magic when the second Mrs. de Winter breaks the taboo of Mandalay and crosses the threshold to the closed west wing to enter the hermetically sealed (so to speak) rooms of the first Mrs. de Winter. Fontaine fumbles across the shadows and reaches for the curtain cord. Music again, and the room fills with the dancing light of the sea, revealing a perfectly kept boudoir. Fontaine’s fingers glance across a hairbrush, a hand mirror, then withdraw as if from a live electrical charge. The open window panes knock in the breeze. The sudden noise alerts us to the presence of Danvers, who stands behind the gauze surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter’s bed. The second Mrs. de Winter nervously explains her presence: ‘I didn’t expect to see you Mrs. Danvers; I noticed a window wasn’t closed and I came up to see if I could fasten it…’ ‘Why did you say that?’ snaps Danvers. ‘I closed it before I left the room. You opened it yourself, didn’t you?’ She opens more curtains, revealing the room’s splendid vanity. She tells her it’s ‘the loveliest room you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?’ She tells her everything has been kept exactly as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.

Don’t we love the concept of the ‘last night’ – the social possibility that everything could end before day break. Rebecca plays with the pleasure of the ‘last night’ through two sequels, or echoes, delaying and thus enhancing the spectacular thrill of catastrophe. There is the desperate costume party given by the second Mrs. de Winter. She leans over the open window of the west wing, in tears over her failed costume. Danvers seizes her moment, sidling up to her impotent mistress. ‘Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on, don’t be afraid.’ The second Mrs. de Winter ponders the ground beneath the mist. Danvers may have succeeded in creating a second ghost to haunt her household if not for the sudden appearance of a shipwreck on the horizon. The rescue mission, of course, unearths the real body of the first Mrs. de Winter, foreshadowing her final narratorial victory.

It’s hard to write about this film because it’s difficult to resist the urge to just retell it. That’s how much I love it. The point is, I’m thinking a lot about its windows. The other blackguard, Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, lover and local car-dealer, enters Mandalay through an open ground floor window, disturbing the  second Mrs. de Winter in her morning room with his caddish assertions. He is cheerful, urbane, and cocky as he acknowledges he is perhaps a less than welcome visitor to the house; but before he leaves, also by way of the window, he chides the young bride for letting Maxim keep her away in hiding. Unsurprisingly, the sexually innocent, ‘lovely thing’ requests that Danvers keep Favell’s visit a secret from the husband, and in fact, to never mention the events of the afternoon again.

I wonder if mothers love Rebecca because it is essentially about spending lots of time in the house. The film invites the viewer to consider the perversity of domestic intimacies, especially those made manifest in the fetish object. Danvers relishes the opportunity to show the second Mrs. de Winter through the perfectly preserved belongings of the first. She takes out a coat, given to Rebecca by Maxim as a Christmas present. Danvers then moves to the underwear drawers, and then finally across to the pillow slip, removing Rebecca’s black negligee. Fontaine’s face expresses a silent horror as the housekeeper murmurs, ‘Did you ever see anything so delicate? Look, you can see my hand through it.’

On the third and final ‘last night’ of Rebecca, Danvers sets fire to Mandalay. I wonder if people who spend lots of time in the house, caring for its inhabitants, caring for its objects, harbour a terrible desire to do likewise, to take the nurturing role to its forbidden, illogical, but emotionally alluring conclusion. The film’s ostensible, or superficial problem, if you will, is that of identification. In the most banal understanding of the film, Danvers suffers from a psychotic over-identification with the first Mrs. de Winter. Whether this over-identification could be read as a repressed lesbian desire is not something I’m well-versed enough to advance, but it’s possible and interesting to consider this.

What interests me is the problem of identification towards the film itself – and I return again to my completely unsubstantiated, but nonetheless felt sense of Rebecca being a film mothers love. I have written this so far in a way that suggests that the archetypal ‘mother viewer’ identifies with the Danvers character, and could make further suggestions to do with fantasies of total control, and fantasies of total servitude to support this claim: ‘If you want anything done, madam, you have only to tell me.’ I also wonder whether the formidable Danvers represents a fantasy of being taken seriously in the household, as ludicrous as this assertion looks. But I equally wonder whether the mother identifies with the second Mrs. de Winter, recognising in the impossibility of the role of homemaker the feeling of being out of one’s depth within a nightmarish, boring, essentially bureaucratic structure beyond one’s control.

Then there’s the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who we never see. How I long to see her! She was beautiful, Danvers repeatedly reminds us. ‘She knew everyone that mattered. And everyone loved her.’ What a tease. We never see her likeness. Is there, in this deliberate, delicious absence, something else here for the mother viewer? A narcissistic seduction, perhaps, an empty space onto which women might project their own self-fantasies of beauty, omnipotence, and love. The final shot is the R on the pillowslip, aflame. Why is there no omni- word for the ability to be loved by everyone? And of course, Rebecca was not loved by everyone. But he who did not was not unpunished for this.

It is not fashionable, and thus not feasible – certainly not serious – to discuss identification in this way when considering texts. One day someone might write the definitive defence of identification and we might proceed. I think someone should think about why certain people like, or dislike, identify, not identify, with such films and fantasies. Why do we like? Why do we love? It is interesting that few words may be said. Finally, I wonder whether mothers identify with the tension of the film itself, rather than its characters. It’s a simple tension, an old tension: innocence and knowledge. In this case, is there a lure in the psychic tension between girl and woman, or girlhood and womanhood? Maybe somewhere in this gap a mother is born.

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