Agata Frymus revisits Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, screened at BFI Southbank throughout September, and wonders why such a blatantly misogynistic film has just been voted ‘best film of all time’ by prominent industry critics
CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE PLOT.
I doubt there is a single film-goer who has never heard about Alfred Hitchcock. The highly-acclaimed Master of Suspense has been put on a pedestal once again. He is currently enjoying a two-month-long retrospective at BFI Southbank (titled grandiosely “The Genius of Hitchcock”) and Sight&Sound’s recent critics’ poll named his Vertigo the ‘best film of all time’.
The criteria the critics followed remain more or less a mystery and, without dismissing the film’s artistic values, I cannot help but wonder if gender representations in Vertigo should not be taken into consideration on their own terms. Doesn’t labelling a picture that is… well, quite sexist, as ‘best film ever’ tell us something about the society we live in? Shouldn’t there be at least some degree of awareness among critics of how harmful such representations might be?
Vertigo tells a story of a middle-aged policeman who decides to retire after witnessing an accident while on duty. He is, however, not destined to enjoy the life of leisure for too long. Soon enough he is asked to follow an acquaintance’s wife to possibly untangle the mystery behind her odd behaviour. Reluctant at first, Scottie (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with the minor task he has been entrusted with. Or, to be more specific, he is completely consumed by the remote charm of the woman he is spying on. Despite the attempts to keep himself at a distance, he gets romantically involved with his friend’s wife. The audience’s preconceptions about the characters are constantly being challenged – something that clearly cannot be said regarding gender representations. Female and male characters are depicted as polar opposites, playing on a straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference. As a woman, the stalked Madeleine (Kim Novak) provides no more than trouble and sexual interludes for the male character. Paradoxically, everything is what is seems in the realm of stereotypes.
Interestingly enough, the film wasn’t adored by critics when it originally came out in 1958, receiving rather mixed or even negative reviews. Hitchcock’s fans would probably argue that the picture was either ahead of its time or was too complex to be grasped at first. While this claim cannot be entirely dismissed (Hitchcock used here a new cinematic technique known as the ‘trombone shot’ for the very first time), I believe the author’s aura can influence the way we perceive their work. We can easily be persuaded of the high artistic value of an artwork if there is a famous name behind it.
Vertigo was growing in stature at the same pace as Hitchcock’s figure was. The aura of the author played a crucial role in the film gaining a cult status. Three films that followed Vertigo (North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds) were massive commercial successes and marked peak years in Hitchcock’s career, forcing some to reinterpret his entire oeuvre. Analogically, Kim Novak is something of an icon nowadays.
The link between masculinity and sanity is widespread in culture; femininity stands for emotional excesses and hence lack of self-control. After all, it was women who suffered from what Freud labelled “hysteria”. It was women who were sent to mental asylums and accused of witchcraft. Men represent the rational sphere and Vertigo‘s protagonist is no different. It is hinted the woman he follows has been possessed by the spirit of her grandmother but none of that paranormal phenomena seems believable to Scottie. It is hardly a surprise: there are no ghosts in men’s world.
The notion of masculinity incorporates the underlying assumption of rationality and control; men have the power to make sense of the world, while women often appear to be lost in the space of the imaginary. In fact, Vertigo constitutes something of a paradise for those looking for gender-based archetypes. Women are shown as confused, helpless and in danger or purely as sexual beings. On the second day of Scottie’s tailing, he rescues Madeleine from drowning while she attempts to commit suicide. Madeleine (at least throughout the first part of the film) is portrayed as passive and defenceless. Being a woman, she is naturally frigid and must be brought around by the man.
This is, nevertheless, probably one of the least troubling motifs in the film. There is yet more stereotyping to come. We learn that a woman should generally be treated as a potential threat to (man’s) sanity, a temptress or a sexual fetish. Failing to recognise these categories might have fatal consequences, bringing even the most sound-minded to the brink of madness.
Now, let’s have a closer look at Scottie’s beloved – or, should I rather say, object of his desires. Indeed, she is not much more than a mere object to Scottie, who perceives her represented by the artefacts such as blonde hair or a grey suit. A turning point in the plot comes when Madeleine falls down from the tower. The consequences are lethal – or at least this is what we are made to think. The conventional role of male is to be the hero and Scottie’s failure signifies the collapse of the ‘hero’ complex. The unfortunate event is what divides film into two parts. In the first one Scottie is obsessing after real, ‘alive’ Madeleine; the second part consists of his obsessional longing after her long-lost image.
After losing Madeleine, Scottie gets interested in yet another girl. Judy’s attractiveness lies purely in her resemblance to Madeleine (aptly, she is also played by Kim Novak). She is obviously not good enough the way she is, as Scottie decides to turn his new lover into Madeleine’s living copy by cajoling her into changing literally everything, from haircut to clothes.
One cannot help but wonder what sort of a wicked contemporary take on Pygmalion the man is. The ease with which he puts Judy’s body through fragmentation, transforming it until it matches his ideal, is uncanny. What Scottie really falls in love with is not a person of flesh and blood; it is a glorified spectacle, a dangerous but intriguing phenomenon. The delusion he pursues to recreate Madeleine is also an obsession with his status, exercising power over women and their freedom.
Unsurprisingly, Judy is less than happy to be subjected to all that. The metamorphosis that has been forced upon her brings her to tears on one occasion. The reasons for which she decides to continue a relationship that gives her nothing more than suffering and humiliation remain unknown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she confirms the archetype of submissive, passive woman who will rather put up with abuse than find enough strength to break the toxic bond.
In Vertigo women are made the villains and are the ones that need to be punished in order to restore peace and sanity for men. The film’s moral is black and white, with no shades of grey. When Scottie solves the puzzle and loses Madeleine once again, this time for real, he regains control over his own life and over his lost masculinity. The ending reaffirms gender roles: Madeleine is made to pay for the deceptive lifestyle she leads by being destroyed while Scottie seems to overcome his vertigo and recover his masculinity.
I find it an incredibly unfair solution that overlooks Madeleine’s positioning. Throughout the film she is a mere puppet in the hands of men who use her as means to achieve their goals. She has nothing to say; all her actions are dictated by either her egoistic and possessive husband or Scottie, no less of a tyrant. Should anyone be punished simply for being in the wrong place in the wrong time? Female protagonists are performers within male universe, meeting (or not) male’s expectations.
I felt sorry for Madeline and Judy and simply could not bring myself to rejoice over this seemingly ‘happy’ ending. Vertigo puts a lot of emphasis on women as a source of anxiety and obsessive enquiry, as if in an attempt to draw attention away from the manipulative nature of male characters. There is something unnerving and deeply misogynistic in its ultimate message: to regain the state of peace means to separate the genders and cease the threat of sexual desire.
All images courtesy of BFI