“The Professor” Is In: Guillermo del Toro on Rebecca

He’s funny, disarming, a genial presence that belies the disturbing sensibility he harbours within. But even more than that, Guillermo del Toro knows his shit. TIFF’s been offering a series of Gothic Master Classes with the renowned director, the last one happening on Monday, August 31st. I was fortunate to attend last week’s dissertation on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Del Toro introduced the film, and fielded questions from the audience afterward. Sitting there in the theatre, I took four pages of notes. He’s nicknamed “The Professor” for a reason.

Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto, by John Carter

Del Toro loves to discuss film, treating it properly as one of the arts like literature or painting. His observations on gothic romance in film were fascinating, and done entirely without notes. Borrowed from fairy tales, gothic romance focuses on the forces that shape us as humans. The movement toward rationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries led to myth and fable being treated with disdain. The backlash against the Enlightenment movement took shape in literature around resurgent unnatural forces. While gothic romance conjures images of “Fabio and his nipples,” (please please remove that picture from my mind’s eye now), it really started with folk tales like Bluebeard and His Wives and the first gothic novel Castle of Otranto. The literature also drew inspiration from the artist Giovanni Piranesi’s engravings of Roman architecture. His sketches captured jails with dungeons that went stories deep. The pull of these antiquarian details helped to spawn gothic literature, with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and then moving on to the oblique ghost stories of Edith Wharton and Henry James.

The Fall of the House of Usher, illustration by Harry Clarke (1923)

In these stories, there are always objects ripe with Jungian significance: a key, a cellar, a door, a corridor, or being underwater. These objects often conjure a memento mori, a reminder of mortality, taking on a pleasing terror with the combination of love and death. Often an innocent character pursues a physical transit to the underworld, or a place far away. There a transformation takes place, rooted in some edifice, a reservoir for everything dark to be encountered. While the edifice can be oppressive, it is not a haunted house exactly. In that genre, the haunted house is malignant, characterized by a sentient quality found in works like The Shining or The Haunting of Hill House. In gothic romance, the edifice exists to transit through it, to purify the self and to allow the protagonist to embark on a self-sufficient adulthood.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are haunted not by a ghost but by a savage memory

Which leads perfectly to Hitchcock’s adaptation Rebecca, a rephrasing of gothic romance for a modern audience. The film (and Daphne Du Maurier’s novel) centres on a young wife (Joan Fontaine) tormented by the memory of her husband’s first wife. Curiously, we never know her first name for the entirety of the story (true of the book as well). We first meet her as the paid companion of Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a wealthy older woman traveling in Monte Carlo. Walking along the cliffs she encounters the wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), peering over the edge into the sea, contemplating the long fall into chill waters with uncertain intent. He seeks her out, her youthful innocence distracting him from the death at sea the year before of his beautiful wife Rebecca. In short order they’re married, and return to the family manse of Manderley, a gorgeous but forbidding estate by the sea. Now Mrs. de Winter herself, the young woman finds herself clashing with the housekeeper, the formidable Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and her husband, as she feels incapable of matching the beauty and wit of revered dead Rebecca. The mystery of the first Mrs. de Winter’s death slowly unfolds, and our young heroine is nearly pulled down in its undertow.

Alfred Hitchcock with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier

Del Toro observed how Alfred Hitchcock often felt misunderstood. Even as a young genius in England, his films inspired and irritated people in equal measure. He moved to Hollywood just as World War II was breaking out, and found himself misunderstood again as a careerist traitor. Even getting work in Hollywood was challenging, but at last David O. Selznick took him on. Renowned as an interfering control freak himself, Selznick fiddled with the script for Rebecca and the final edits. Hitchcock countered by limiting the coverage he shot and sneaking images into the frames that would be missed or couldn’t be edited out. He disliked the score for Franz Waxman, for its “Mickey Mousing” qualities, spelling out with heavy hand the action on screen. Selznick was very literal and they even wrestled over the ending shots of the film. (Hitchcock won.)

Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter can’t compare to her predecessor, especially in housekeeper Mrs. Danvers’s eyes (Judith Anderson)

Hitchcock found many ways to infantilize Joan Fontaine’s unnamed character. Door knobs were placed higher than her, and her boudoir filled with oversized furniture. In much of the film, the camera pulls away from her, minimizing her in frame. These techniques highlighted her struggle with her perceived insignificance in the oppressive absence of Rebecca de Winter’s memory. The housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who worshipped Rebecca almost becomes her real-world personification, with a ghostly presence. Hitchcock never shows Mrs. Danvers entering or leaving a room. She always magically appears in a scene, to uncomfortable effect. Renowned for his psychological games with his stars, Hitchcock deployed shrewdly manipulative tactics to get the performances he wanted. Laurence Olivier was married at the time to Vivian Leigh, who tested for the part of his young wife in the film. She didn’t get it, and Hitchcock rubbed that in regularly, saying she wasn’t good enough for the role. To back that up, he told Joan Fontaine that Olivier hated her for the same reason. All of which helped to build an uneasy tension in their on-screen relationship. That kind of manipulation isn’t something del Toro himself approves of, but it clearly got results. He reminisced about being cruel to a child actor to make him cry for a scene in his own film The Devil’s Backbone (2001), but generally he tries to steer clear of such shenanigans.

The conflagration at the end of Rebecca at last sets the couple free

Only with the erasure of the past, the solving of Rebecca’s mysterious death and the immolation of de Winter’s ancestral home are the two lovers at last free to go forward together. Trapped inside the mansion in a raging fire of her own making, Mrs. Danvers becomes the mansion, and dies with the ashes of Rebecca de Winter’s memory. Even as a burning model utilizing dated effects technology, it’s still a powerful moment in the film. The young wife’s transition from innocence to adulthood is complete. Del Toro had other observations about the uncomfortable sexual politics of the film, very much a product of its time, and Hitchcock’s clear class awareness underscoring the conflict in the film. All in all, it was a rich and rewarding exploration of a forties Hollywood classic, by a filmmaker deeply and self-avowedly indebted to the genius of Hitchcock.

The final Gothic Master Class with Guillermo del Toro at TIFF takes up Jayne Eyre (1943), starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. It’s on Monday, August 31st and you can find more info here.


One Reply to ““The Professor” Is In: Guillermo del Toro on Rebecca”

  1. Luke, this was beautiful. I feel like I was sitting next to you as you jotted down notes while Del Toro spoke..

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