Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca: Trauma on Film

rebecca Fontaine Olivier

As I’ve mentioned before, I was lucky enough to take a course on Hitchcock through Princeton’s English department earlier this year. As with most of the films we viewed and studied for the course, I had never seen Rebecca (1940) before and was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed it.

Below, I examine a pair of shots from the film (my two favorites actually) in which traumatic experience is rendered more or less visible.
Rebecca (DVD)

Trauma and its Role in Rebecca
Trauma is a complicated subject, which I clearly can’t explain in full (or even claim to understand fully myself). That said, one piece that helped me to begin understanding the nature of trauma (in literary theory anyway) and that is helpful if one wants to examine trauma in Rebecca is Cathy Caruth’s introduction to Unclaimed Experience, “The Wound and the Voice.” (I reference this piece occasionally throughout what follows).

As Caruth writes, trauma, a “wound of the mind,” “is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event”; it is “an event . . . experienced too soon, to unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.” Rebecca features multiple instances of the sort of trauma-fueled “repetitive actions” Caruth mentions; these include the young Mrs. de Winter’s involvement with an older man (Maxim) less than a year after the death of her father, as well as Maxim’s marriage to the second Mrs. de Winter (who he first sees where he honeymooned with his first wife Rebecca) not long after Rebecca’s death. Trauma and its effects permeate the film.

Traumatic experience is present not only in the film’s plot, but also in the various ways in which that plot is presented. At key moments in Rebecca, Hitchcock evokes trauma, and he does so more more through camera movement and mise-en-scène than through the lines or actions of his characters. Since traumatic experience is seldom understood by its survivors, their potential to communicate its effects to others is inherently limited (Caruth). While survivors of trauma may find it difficult to communicate the reality of their experience, Hitchcock proves that film and the camera have no problem doing it for them.

Shot One: into Manderley, into the Past, into Trauma.
(View Shot on Youtube)
With Rebecca’s second shot, Hitchcock fixes the film firmly in the land of traumatic memory. This shot contains no mention of trauma or traumatic events, but it does contain the film’s first indications that Mrs. de Winter is in fact traumatized by her time at Manderley.

After the credits, the film opens with a four-second shot of the moon; then, Mrs. de Winter’s narration begins, and an image of Manderley’s iron gate fades in. In a dreamy, almost sing-song voice, Mrs. de Winter describes a recent dream she had of Manderley (which, in the “present” from which she is speaking is no longer a gorgeous mansion, but a burned-out ruin). Somewhat strangely, Mrs. de Winter herself is not visibly present in the shot, though her dream is. Hitchcock could have easily made Mrs. de Winter visible in the film’s opening (he could have shown her describing the dream to someone instead of showing the dream itself, or he could have filmed the dream so as to show her walking within it, but he doesn’t). By not allowing Mrs. de Winter to actually appear in her own dream of Manderley, Hitchcock effectively separates her from it. This separation between the subject (Mrs. de Winter) who experiences an event and the event itself (her dream of Manderley) suggests that the dream is traumatic. For, “traumatic experience [according to Freud] is an experience that it not fully assimilated as it occurs” (Caruth).

Mrs. de Winter’s words correspond directly to the images on screen throughout this shot—what she describes and what viewers see are one in the same. However, because Mrs. de Winter’s voice in this shot is non-diegetic, and because at this early point in the film, viewers have no face to assign to the narration they are hearing, a dissonance remains between Mrs. de Winter herself and the dream that appears on screen. The dream is hers, but it is also separate from her. The trauma indicated by this separation is also reinforced by the film’s first sentence: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Mrs. de Winter’s wording suggests that she has had the dream before and in Freud, recurring dreams are heavily associated with trauma (Caruth). Mrs. de Winter may not know it, but her dream of Manderley is a traumatic one.

This early (and somewhat lengthy shot) also establishes a connection in the film between a certain type of camera movement (which also occurs in the next shot I discuss) and the depiction of traumatic experience. Throughout the shot, the synchronization between Mrs. de Winter’s voice-over narration and the images on screen is virtually perfect. For instance, Mrs. de Winter’s begins describing her dream saying, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive. And, for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.” As she says this, the shut gate of Manderley occupies the center of the screen. Mrs. de Winter continues: “Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.” Surely enough, as Mrs. de Winter mentions passing through the gate “like a spirit,” the camera passes through it, taking viewers to its other side, as only a camera can. For the rest of the shot, the camera continues to lead viewers through the world of Mrs. de Winter’s dream. By keeping the camera around eye-level for the entire shot, Hitchcock essentially puts his viewers in Mrs. de Winter’s place within the dream, thereby involving them in her trauma. Not only do viewers of this shot see what Mrs. de Winter sees in her dreams of Manderley, but they also see it as she sees it (that is, from what is presumably her vantage point).

With Rebecca’s second shot, Hitchcock associates a particular sort of camera movement with the depiction of trauma, so that, when he does finally employ the technique again, it is cue to his audiences that trauma is not far-off. Also, that the shot ends with viewers having been taken (by the camera and Mrs. de Winter’s narration alike) rather close to Manderley indicates that it is Manderley that is the heart of Mrs. de Winter’s trauma. Rebecca’s second shot and opening monologue frame the story that follows as the result of Mrs. de Winter’s trauma and make it clear that, one cannot watch the film without being taken into that trauma.

 Shot Two: Rebecca’s Dead, but She isn’t Powerless
(View Shot on Youtube)
Much later in Rebecca, Hitchcock includes a shot that recalls much that is unusual (and related to the traumatic) in the shot discussed above.This shot depicts Maxim de Winter’s narrated account of his wife’s death in a manner eerily similar to that with which the earlier shot depicts Mrs. de Winter’s dream.

For example, the camera movement and what viewers see in this shot are motivated by the narration of a character positioned somewhere outside of the frame. As with the film’s early shot of Manderley, the camera in this shot does not follow any visible figure (as is typical); instead, the camera movement is driven by a traumatic event that is being relived by Maxim as he retells it. As Maxim tells Mrs. de Winter of the night of Rebecca’s death, viewers are shown the spaces that Rebecca herself once occupied. By including what is (in many ways) a repetition of Rebecca’s second shot at a climactic moment late in the film, Hitchcock further emphasizes the repetitive nature of trauma.

Also, even though Maxim does appear in the latter half of the traumatic shot he narrates, his presence does not diminish its traumatic nature. Where Mrs. de Winter’s absence from the earlier shot suggests the inability of survivors of trauma to fully assimilate and comprehend their traumatic experience, Maxim’s presence in this later shot emphasizes just how helpless and in pain the victim of trauma really is. In the shot, Maxim is clearly shaken by the story he himself is telling. He even reacts to the events he narrates as if they were happening right in front of him for the first time. Maxim here he is being “subjected” to “a series of painful events” beyond his control (Caruth). Maxim suffers he as relives his trauma.

Furthermore, the fact that the shot in which Maxim both recounts and relives Rebecca’s death is shot in a way that essentially mimics the shot of Mrs. de Winter’s recurring dream reinforces Mrs. de Winter’s traumatized status at the beginning of the film. The particular combination of camera movement directed by narration and a mise-en-scène lacking a visible person connects the two shots; so, if Maxim is affected by trauma in the shot that he narrates, so too is Mrs. de Winter in the one she narrates (and vice versa). With the shot that follows the Rebecca of Maxim’s memory as he describes the night of her death, Hitchcock emphasizes that the world of traumatic memory is a world of repetition while also reminding viewers that Maxim’s is hardly the only trauma in the film.

It should also be noted that, in the scene in which Maxim finally reveals how Rebecca died, Mrs. de Winter becomes a spectator. As Maxim narrates Rebecca’s last moments, Mrs. de Winter doesn’t look at Maxim, she looks where Rebecca would have been (that is, she looks where the camera and the viewers look). Like Maxim, she is even shown reacting to something that is not actually happening as if it were. By putting Mrs. de Winter in the position of spectator in this scene and by having her watch what the viewers watch, Hitchcock reinforces the fact that the entire film is a tale of trauma (because it is both permeated with trauma and begins with Mrs. de Winter being taken back to Manderley by her trauma-fueled dream).

One More Thing
That shots like the two above do not occur regularly throughout Rebecca does not reduce the film’s potential to communicate the intensely traumatic nature of its plot or certain characteristics of traumatic experience to its viewers. If anything, it increases it.

The interval of over ninety minutes that occurs between the two shots is long enough that, by the time viewers find out how Rebecca died, they may have forgotten the details of the shot in which Mrs. de Winter describes her dream. By the time viewers find out how Rebecca died, they may have even forgotten that most of the film is a flashback, a product of Mrs. de Winter’s memories rather than a series of events unfolding for the first time. The similarities between the two shots are strong enough for the latter to bring details of the former back to the forefront of audience’s minds. Rebecca takes place in the world of memory. That viewers of the film may, at times, lose sight of this fact does nothing to diminish its importance; actually, by allowing Hitchcock to remind viewers of an earlier experience (watching the film’s opening) when they are unlikely to expect it, the distance between the shots increases the likelihood that what audiences experience while viewing the film is akin to what Maxim and Mrs. de Winter experiences while reliving their traumas. By giving his viewers time to forget that the film they are watching takes place in Mrs. de Winter’s memories of the past only to remind them of it quite dramatically in a climactic scene, Hitchcock makes it clear that the world of memory Rebecca renders visible is not benign or inert. It is traumatic.

Wrapping Up
That the two shots I’ve just discussed occur at key points in the film—at its beginning and its climax—hardly seems coincidental. By choosing such narratively critical scenes to demonstrate camerawork’s ability to depict trauma and to evoke sensations traditionally associated with traumatic experience, Hitchcock underscores the importance of such camerawork to Rebecca as a whole. There, is no Rebecca without trauma, and, in the film, Hitchcock demonstrates that there is more to depicting trauma than telling a story in which apparently traumatized figures figure heavily. Thanks largely to Hitchcock’s decision to feature trauma, not only at the level of plot (which I didn’t really get into), but also at that of camera movement and mise-en-scène, to watch Rebecca is to view and to experience the traumatic.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. Feel free to leave a comment if you found this post interesting or have more to say on the topic.

Also, I probably won’t post a review of it, but I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes today. So woo?

4 thoughts on “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca: Trauma on Film

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