Deconstructing Madeleine

kim-novak-museum-scene-in-vertigo

Madeleine is one of two characters played by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. In it Novak plays Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. For those of you who haven’t seen Vertigo, I won’t go any further in spoiling the film for you. All you have to know is that Madeleine represents an ideal for the male protagonist, especially in terms of her appearance. Specifically, the character Scottie (played by James Stewart) develops an obsession with Madeleine’s beauty and elegance, manifest through clothing, makeup and hairstyle. I view the character Madeleine as an appropriate symbol for my own rather hypnotic attraction to women’s clothing in film, especially when it comes to classic Hollywood techniques (cue those “fuzzy” and oh-so-dreamy, lingering closeups).

The first post will be dedicated to Madeleine, in an essay comparing Vertigo and François Truffaut’s La mariée était en noir (1967). The latter film is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1940 novel The Bride Wore Black and stars Jeanne Moreau as the avenging bride (I provide a brief summary of the film in the essay). It is important to note that the essay focuses on the figure of the femme fatale, a seductive-yet-deadly character that recurs in film noir. However I think I’ll leave the subject of femme fatales for another post, which would make for a rather appropriate transition from this week’s topic. 

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The Figure of the Femme Fatale in Vertigo (1958) and La mariée était en noir (1967)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Franҫois Truffaut’s La mariée était en noir (1967) both play with what Tania Modleski calls “the enigma of ‘woman’” (99). This is done by bringing the male characters’ fantasy to the fore and exposing their misinterpretation of femininity. The femme fatale is almost always very beautiful, and as Karen Hollinger points out in her essay, is granted “overwhelming visual power” (246). However, beauty (equated with danger in film noir) is an ideal, a construction – and if one accepts Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze – a decidedly male worship of the right combination of clothing, hair style and makeup. Vertigo and La mariée était en noir emphasize the significance of women’s fashion in cinema, especially in film noir where a female character’s power is often suggested through clothing.

Though Vertigo is not usually referred to as a film noir, it utilizes the noir convention positioning woman as mystery. Hollinger writes: “[Noir films] seem to be concerned with ascertaining ‘what the woman wants,’ finding the essential nature of female difference, which is often symbolized in female sexuality…. Femininity thus becomes the ultimate subject of the film’s discourse” (244). In the film, Scottie (James Stewart) falls in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak), a hauntingly beautiful blonde in an elegant grey suit, who is supposedly possessed by a 19th century spirit named Carlotta Valdes. Eerie parallels are made between Madeleine and Carlotta, especially in visual terms. This is pointed out in the scene where Scottie follows Madeleine to the museum with Carlotta’s portrait on display. Hitchcock sets the scene up so the viewer/Scottie can make the link between Madeleine and the painting. The camera mimics Scottie’s gaze by dollying up to the portrait with Madeleine sitting beneath it. Madeleine has picked out the same bouquet that Carlotta is holding in the picture, and her hair is done up in the same manner as the sitter’s in the portrait.

After Madeleine allegedly commits suicide, Scottie is driven mad and mistakes every blonde woman in a grey suit to be Madeleine. When Scottie meets a woman named Judy (Novak) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine (albeit a “cheapened” version wearing a different hairstyle and heavy makeup) he goes to great lengths to make her into the dreamy, sophisticated woman he originally fell in love with. In order to bring Madeleine “back from the dead” (because at this point in the narrative Scottie does not know that Judy and Madeleine are in fact the same person) Scottie pressures Judy to change her clothes and hairstyle—a somewhat ironic reversal of roles where the man is actually in his element in the fashion boutique and beauty parlor. “Madeleine/Judy is like a living doll whom the hero strips and changes and makes over according to his ideal image,” writes Modleski (90). In fact, Madeleine never really existed; it was Judy all along in a costume. It is clear that what Scottie truly fell in love with was the idea of Madeleine, including “those beautiful phoney trances” that reduced her to a helpless, romantic ideal.

In a way, Truffaut’s film exposes a similar weakness in the men Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) encounters. Julie assumes the role of the nameless femme élégante (one of her victims refers to her as “a vision that does not speak”) as she enters the lives of men who have their own criteria of what makes an ideal woman. Indeed, Julie is always dressed to kill. In a scene which parodies male chivalry (or the cliché of the damsel in distress) Julie makes her first victim retrieve a scarf intentionally thrown over a balcony; he falls to his death, of course. What follows are shots of Julie’s scarf – the only real weapon, in a way – blowing in the wind, floating high above the city; a formless and untraceable object (like Julie, one could say).

The strongest link Truffaut’s film shares with Vertigo is Fergus’s paintings of Julie, bringing to mind the association between Madeleine/Judy and Carlotta. As a way to trap Fergus, Julie changes her appearance to look like the kind of woman he likes to paint. Julie poses for Fergus’ painting and becomes a modern-day, sexier version of Diana with bow and arrow. Ironically, Fergus is destroyed by his creation (Julie shoots him with her prop) and this exemplifies the film noir tendency to associate sexuality (especially, if not always, female sexuality) with danger.

The title of Truffaut’s film (based on the Cornell Woolrich novel of the same name) already suggests the importance of clothing; in this case, the traditional white wedding gown is substituted for black—evoking funeral attire or perhaps more accurately, the black widow spider. And if the femme fatale is often immortalized by her introduction in the film (Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice; Jane Greer in Out of the Past), especially in terms of what she is wearing, then maybe it is appropriate that Julie does not destroy Fergus’s reclining nude portrait of herself towards the end of Lamariée était en noir. Perhaps it is her way of reclaiming her naked body, which is for once free of clothing stereotypes (woman in white=purity, goodness) used to delineate female nature.

Sources:

Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice-Over and the Femme Fatale.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 2006. 243-259. Print.

Modleski, Tania. “Femininity by Design.” The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Dutton, 1980. 62-81. Print.

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