Enigma Variation

MY COUSIN RACHEL, Olivia de Havilland, Richard Burton, Audrey Dalton, 1952, TM and copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved

Well, well. My Cousin Rachel. Is she or isn’t she? Maybe only Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the original novel that the 1952 film is based on, knew for sure, and then, maybe not—whatever the case, no one is telling.

The film itself is a faithful adaptation of du Maurier’s work, keeping the novel’s plot and its limited viewpoint of its protagonist, the young Cornish squire Philip Ashley, played by the young Richard Burton with a snorting passion that no doubt set audience hearts aflutter. Taking place in the early 19th century, its story centers on Philip’s obsession with the title character: the mysterious, older, expatriate Englishwoman Rachel, who had earlier married Philip’s middle-aged cousin and guardian Ambrose, and who may have poisoned him (letters from the dying husband accuse her of such). Now that she’s visiting cousin Philip at his Cornish estate, he’s trying to puzzle her out. Did she murder Ambrose? Has she now come to murder Philip, in an attempt to gain the Ashley property and money left to him? Or is she merely an unprotected, out-of-place widow, whose much more liberated European ways (she’s lived all her adult life in Italy) are unfairly perceived by the parochial English?


Rachel is the story’s Enigma, the still, dark point round which Philip circles and circles like a baffled hawk, trying to trap her, but failing—she slips away from him like silk through soft fingers. She also sets up the plot as a narrative of contrasts: of youth versus experience, provincial versus continental, insular versus worldly. How, then, for us viewers to see Rachel? In Philip’s eyes, she’s contradictory, complex, a two-sided mirror whose reflections don’t match—impoverished but spendthrift, considerate but calculating, artful but sincere. Yet she’s presented to us only through the naïve Philip’s eyes and those of other characters as they report their views to Philip. How much should audiences judge by what’s said from possibly prejudiced observers within the story?

Most intoxicating—and maddening—to Philip is Rachel’s granting the young man a night’s fling with her, only to refuse to marry him afterwards (she’s even surprised by the assumption). For the virginal Philip, sex should lead to a lifetime commitment; the mores of his puritan society have defined it so. For the sophisticated Rachel, it’s a mere expression of gratitude; Philip has given her some priceless jewelry as a gift and she has returned the favor, so to speak. Is Rachel then a whore, ceding her virtue for material trinkets, or is she a free spirit, not bound by petty bourgeois morality? Is she further entrapping the enamored Philip or is she, by her lights, simply being kind?


Rachel reminded me of another, capital-R du Maurier woman, the title character of her most famous book, Rebecca.  Here again was a woman of, shall we say, broad tastes and interests, married to a much more conventional man who seeks only a good wife and companion. Rebecca isn’t European, but the idea is there: she lives her life her way, using her wedded status as protection and cover, merely fulfilling its social obligations. She assumes the privileged hedonism of a continental aristocrat, while husband Max de Winter, as with Philip and Ambrose, behaves like the nervous bourgeoisie, concerned only with reputations and a squeezed definition of what constitutes proper obeisance from a wife. Hence the tension that develops between these two women and their Englishmen. The ladies like their freedoms, the men demand straitened behavior. In each case, the perspective of respectability dominates the narrative, which works to the two women’s disadvantage. What they happen to think and feel can only come at us obliquely, as if gliding on small feet through a side door.

Rebecca’s greatest disadvantage is that she’s dead before the story starts; all we ever can learn of her is through other characters’ viewpoints. She can’t speak for herself. Film, of course, relies on the visual, but on film the absent Rebecca can be conveyed visually only via mise en scène: Hitchcock in his famous film represents her by the fabulous furnishings in her bedroom, or by the deep, shadowy lighting in the boathouse where she met her end (though even then we get a sense of this woman’s vitality, of her overwhelming presence and effect on others). Whereas Rachel, being alive, can be represented; and film further gives her the benefit of a medium that doesn’t limit her to one character’s descriptive prose, but can present her as a separate, perceived entity (even in a two-dimensional movie Rachel is still a physical presence). Now we can see Rachel for ourselves, watch her expressions, hear her vocal inflections, and make up our own minds, independently, of who or what she is.


But the story’s point is still the mystery. Rachel, however fixed and central she is to the plot, can never be static. Even visualized, she must keep us always in doubt, always swinging between certainties. Devolve from that balance the slightest, and the story would become a mere thriller—of either a blatant femme fatale out to pounce, or of a wronged female helplessly misjudged. The question then is—who is to play Rachel? Who can embody her elusive, provocative, disquieting mien?

Reportedly, either or both producer-screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director George Cukor wanted Greta Garbo for the lead role; but she couldn’t be lured—cinema’s Sphinx, alas, did not care to play another of her tribe onscreen. Vivien Leigh was also sought, but she didn’t want to make the picture outside of England. Leigh might have been really good. As she demonstrated in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, she could shift and turn in her feelings like the beat of a butterfly’s wing, while also indicating, with eyes and voice, an inner world of uncertainty and solitude. A few years later, in 1955’s The Deep Blue Sea, Leigh exuded a sad, world-weary glamour, the ambiguous appeal of the aging beauty, still aware of her ability to tempt heedless youth, but now chary of such attachments. Whether she could have transmuted such quicksilver into du Maurier’s heroine onscreen, however, must remain as intangible as Rachel herself.

The role finally went to Olivia de Havilland, her first since 1949’s The Heiress (the trailers trumpeted her performance as her grand return to the big screen). De Havilland was then in her mid-thirties, right about Cousin Rachel’s age (Philip is about ten years younger, as was Burton). She also resembles the novel’s character as described, small, dark-haired, pale-skinned. She’s fine in the role, if a bit sedate, not trying to act too mysterious—leaving the mystery for us to decide. When dressed up in period finery (crinolines, wasp-waist dresses, that peculiar sculpted hair style of the 1830s-40s, which looks as if set and baked in porcelain around the face), she actually looks older—a mature beauty, elegant, cool, and urbane. But in a scene of her with loose hair and in a simple white nightgown, she’s like a teenager, her eyes large and radiant, her figure slim as a girl’s. In such guise I had a swift, odd recollection of de Havilland as Maid Marian, wide-eyed and fresh-faced, a dew-splashed morning rose. For a moment the actress seemed to have traveled back in time; or perhaps, had captured the ephemeral enchantment of what we call the Eternal Feminine—manifesting, at any age, the infinite mystery and allure of beauty, its gleam of projected desire dazzling a man’s smitten eyes.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only Mandatory Credit: Photo by SNAP / Rex Features ( 390907ny ) VARIOUS

Like the novel the film is Quality stuff—well done, literate, tasteful. Henry Koster, who eventually directed (Cukor having dropped out), fills his scenes with beautiful imagery, whether of a decaying Italian villa or a quietly sumptuous English drawing room illumined by candlelight. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeously composed; de Havilland, usually dressed in contrasting black or white, is often posed just off center, befitting her character’s unsettling aura. Burton’s performance as Philip is quite good, really, and he realizes the character as drawn by du Maurier: callow without understanding that he is, thrashed about by uncontrollable urges he can’t be bothered to understand.

I could have wished, though, that the film (as well as the novel) hadn’t been so calm and dignified, but could have been stranger, more odd in its ambiguity. More like what Henry James accomplished in The Turn of the Screw, a nightmarish story of sensing the impalpable in the solid world. You could argue that James was dealing with the supernatural, another realm altogether; but du Maurier was dealing with suspicions of murder, which surely has its own horrors. I suspect the film’s literate style and historical setting, and above all its tasteful telling, might have persuaded filmgoers to see that as greatness. What could someone like Welles have done with the material? My guess is he would have made it darker, more unbalanced, crazier. So might have Hitchcock (who had disliked Selznick’s insistence on a blow-by-blow adaptation of Rebecca). I dunno. My Cousin Rachel is like a tastefully appointed room that’s refined and balanced and harmonious and somewhat forgettable. Sometimes a dash of blood red can make all the difference.


BONUS CLIP: the trailer for My Cousin Rachel (announced with all the flourish of the 20th-Century Fox fanfare music): giving “a promise of ecstasy and a life of torment”:

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  1. Love Olivia de Havilland. Great review!

  2. Toronto Film Society programmed this film for tonight and I had been waiting to read your review until after seeing it. It had been many years since I had read the book and seen the film and was quite looking forward to the screening. I enjoyed your review, always an interesting perspective, and plan to link it to the notes on the Society’s website. I did read a bit of it when you first posted it, and agreed that although I was hoping that the movie would clear up any ambiguity with regard to Rachel’s nature, it happily didn’t. Maybe it’s time to re-read the novel. Regards.

    • My impression about the way DuMaurier wrote her novel is that the ambiguity is not meant to be cleared up; that it’s left up to the reader (and viewer) to decide (or not). And the film followed this pretty faithfully (although I had a sense it was leaning towards Rachel’s innocence). There’s another film that came out around the same time as My Cousin Rachel, called Madeleine, directed by David Lean, about whether a young woman did or did not poison her lover. A fascinating exercise in ambiguity, and it being based on a true story made it even more so (the court verdict on the real-life case was “not proven”). If you haven’t seen that one, I highly recommend it. Thanks for commenting, and thanks also for the linking to the film society!

  1. My Cousin Rachel (1952) - Toronto Film Society - Toronto Film Society
  2. My Cousin Rachel (1952) - Toronto Film Society

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