Directed by Roger Michell (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
"Women want love to be a novel, men a short story." Daphne du Maurier.
Of all the genres that be, the gothic is my favorite. It's probably the most difficult to describe or pin down - it has an innate abstractness that is crucial to the form, and is based in subtle emotional cues and carefully orchestrated mis en scene rather than traditional exposition. Gothicism is related to horror in that it wonders at the miseries inherent in existence, and the mysteries that seem to be unknowable. But it's that mystery that draws me to it, that melancholy that speaks to my romantic sensibilities. Every year I hope there will be at least one or two films that understand the delicate nature of the genre; my hope is that someone else wants to keep it alive as I do. Truly gothic films are typically rare, as it takes a specific sensibility: more nuance than straight horror or romance, and a particular attention to detail. When it comes to literature, many gothic works have been written by women - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, respectively, the many haunting works of the great Shirley Jackson, and the works of Daphne du Maurier - of which My Cousin Rachel is one - including the enduring Rebecca. Let's face it, patriarchal culture has created an environment where women understand the inherent pain in existence all too well. Therefore it makes perfect sense that gothic horror and romanticism would be an area where women would be particularly adept. In a world that functions primarily for white men, women have often had to find our own light amid the shadows, cut off from financial and social privileges. In writing, as in all art, catharsis comes from confronting the horrors of life, and reveling in its fleeting moments of pleasure. But that social oppression is never far, and gothicism understands the pain of the female experience perhaps more than any other traditional genre.
I do wish a woman had been given a chance to direct this film, which is perhaps my only glaring criticism of it. As I said above, in a society as overwhelmingly machismo as traditional patriarchy, gothic has generally been a breathing space for women pushed out of more conventional genres. Instead, it's directed by Roger Michell, of Notting Hill fame. Any issues I have with the story not pushing the examination of the fragility of notions of masculinity quite as far as I think it should have are inevitably wrapped up in the director being a cis white male. But to his credit, those themes are certainly here - they're just not surface-level, and you actually need to do some work to dig into the complexity and subtlety of this story.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) is the ward of his wealthy cousin Ambrose after being orphaned as a child, and grows up without much in the way of female influence to his adulthood. Ambrose is inclined toward ill health, and goes on holiday to warmer climates for much of the year. Returning from school, Philip receives a letter from his guardian that explains he has met a woman named Rachel and has married her. Philip begins to receive more letters over time, but their tone darkens, becoming more paranoid and frantic. Ambrose implies Rachel is contributing to his declining health, and is suspicious of her reckless money-spending. He asks Philip to come to him, apparently fearing for his safety. When Philip arrives in Italy, he is informed by a man there named Rinaldi that Ambrose is dead and Rachel has left the villa. Upon his return to England, Philip is informed Rachel is soon to arrive at the estate that will soon be turned over to him on his encroaching 25th birthday.
Philip is determined to hate Rachel (Rachel Weisz), suspicious and resentful of her after his guardian's letters, but he quickly falls into an infatuation with her, one I hesitate to associate with love. The film does a good job establishing the general lack of feminine energy in Philip's life up till the point at which he meets Rachel - his godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) is the only other familial figure in Philip's life, and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) is the only woman Philip regularly interacts with. It's expected that he and Louise will marry at some point, and the film does a particularly adept job at subtly communicating to the audience that though Louise is clearly in love with Philip, he feels nothing beyond a chaste platonic affection for her, or rather, enjoys her company only insomuch as it serves him. I've only seen Claflin in one film before this (the jumbled mess that is The Quiet Ones), but I was impressed with how well he was able to convey Philip's deeply childish and self-absorbed reality. Claflin cuts a dashing, traditionally masculine figure, tall with a wide, naturally muscled form, filling the scenes he's in with a visceral, almost inherently hostile male energy, which juxtaposes starkly with Philip's deep immaturity. To put it in the vernacular: Philip is a baby dick, a boy who grew into a man's body but has never been made to do any of the emotional or physical labor that builds character and turns a boy into a man. He's used to getting whatever he likes whenever he cares to have it, and is not concerned with how his behavior affects others. Like other gothic male figures (Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Rochester in Jane Eyre) he represents both that which draws women in and repels them about the male condition.
But nothing in his simple existence has prepared him to reckon with a woman so complex and starkly real as Rachel. Her sly wit and charm is immediately apparent when Philip attempts to exert his master-of-the-house will over her by riding off before her arrival and demanding the servants not let her eat dinner until his return. Rachel turns his childishness and lack of etiquette back on him, instead going straight to her room and instead forcing him to come to her, even as a guest. Rachel continues to work on Philip similarly as they spend time together, to the point that he is utterly obsessed with her and deludes himself into believing she loves him. He demands the priceless pearls that were his mother's that now belong to the estate as a gift to Rachel, and insists his godfather draw up a large sum of money for her. Rachel reveals to Philip that she has a rewritten will Ambrose drew before he died, but it was left unsigned. In his fevered desire for her, Philip insists he and Nick sign the document, effectively giving all assets to Rachel in their entirety, having deluded himself into a fantasy that he and Rachel will marry and share the estate between them.
Ugh. Men. Claflin's Philip became abhorrent to me at a certain point - I've known too many men like him, men who cared little for the way their actions affected those surrounding them, intent on their own selfish desires, happy to erase a woman's autonomy entirely if it meant they could "win" her. This story is set in a time and place where women had practically no agency, tied down by social expectations and often unable to earn money through any but the most basic trades (teaching as a governess being one of the most common, which was considered a destitute profession for spinsters). So much of the experience in this film is utterly subjective to its audience, which I found fascinating in its extremity. The audience I sat with was comprised of a high number of baby boomers, and a good number of them were white men. I wonder, if everyone had been given a comment card, what those white men would have written down if asked for their opinion regarding Rachel's intentions as a character. The end of the film leaves us in a haze of ambiguity, an ambiguity I would like to leave unspoiled, as I feel much of the power of this film has to do with not really being given all the cards. But inevitably, I know for certain many of the women in that audience had a different reaction to this film than the men. In a culture such as ours, it's practically impossible for this dichotomy to not manifest itself in the subconscious, especially when viewing art and media. Rachel is a character I identified with strongly - she uses her environment and the tools at her disposal to survive and occasionally to amuse herself. Rachel is human, but through the haze of Philip's infatuation, she appears almost otherworldly, a shadowed patriarchal dream of a woman, rather than her inherently autonomous self. Rachel is undoubtedly manipulative, but what is the true nature of her manipulation? Is it self-preservation, or is truly motivated by a desire for power? We are not given the privilege of a straight answer - instead, we are forced to self-reflect and decide what kind of person Rachel is on our own terms, and inevitably, we also are forced to decide what kind of person we are, and what right we have to judge her.
The visual gorgeousness of the film mesmerized me. The house itself felt real, old, dusty, dirty, lit by a hundred candles, damp and drafty, illuminated by Rachel's spirit, filled with Philip's arrogant presence, as breathing an entity as any other character here. There are sweeping shots of the craggy hills and green meadows, and quieter, more subtle moments of exposition where we are brought achingly, almost intrusively close to the emotions hidden beneath the surface. Over Rachel's shoulder, or resting on the nape of her neck, the camera looks at her with a lover's eye, but she remains hidden to us, her emotions trapped within, turned away from our gaze. Her face, beneath a black veil, remains cool, unreadable, and removed. Men would like for women to be simple, docile, and attendant. When they get a glimpse of the surface of our waters, they believe they've swum our depths. But we go on and on; they've dipped a foot while our selves sink further down in the depths of our true humanity.
The more I think about this movie the more I love it, especially its subjectivity and its abstractness - its refusal to give us answers actually feels like an answer in itself, but not in a way that is a detriment to the inherently unknowable that is innate to the gothic. Rachel's mysteries remain her own. And this is the first (hopefully not the last) legitimately gothic film of 2017.