What a joy, Sunday afternoon watching one of my favourite movies, Hitchcock's Vertigo. I don't like it quite as much as Rear Window, but perhaps it's a more intriguing and bizarre film. It explores a similar idea - at what point does a fascination, an obsession, become a perversion?
I find Vertigo so brilliant because I don't think any other work of art has so successfully explored the way that we project our fantasies and desires onto other people. I mean, we are often drawn to people, or repelled by people, because they remind us of someone else, and we turn them into characters in our own inner psycho-dramas. We are haunted by the ghosts of previous relationships, and often these ghosts will, in our mind, possess new people we meet, so that we seem, in our minds, to be conversing with, even embracing, the past.
In the film, James Stewart plays Scott, a retired detective who becomes bewitched by a mysterious woman, a blonde called Madeline, who is in turn obsessed with the idea she is the reincarnation of an eighteenth century lady whose painting she goes to see every day in the San Francisco Gallery. The eighteenth century lady tragically went mad and threw herself from a tower, and the blonde is morbidly convinced the same fate will befall her.
She and Scott fall in love, but she becomes increasingly obsessed with her fate. One evening, they drive to the tower where the eighteenth century lady killed herself two centuries before. Madeline suddenly runs up the tower. Scott tries to stop her, but he gets vertigo walking up the tower steps, and can't go on. Madeline falls to her death.
A year later, Scott can't get over the death and the feeling that it was his fault. Everywhere he looks, he seems to see Madeline He is haunted by her. Then, one evening, he sees a woman in the street who looks exactly like her, except this lady is a secretary called Judy, and she is a brunette. He follows her, and explains how she looks just like a former love of his who killed herself.
He begins to court Judy, and she falls in love with him. But he insists on turning her into Madeline - making her dress like her, even making her dye her hair blonde and pinning it back like Madeline did. It becomes uncomfortable watching the relationship, as you realize how obsessed Scott is, even to the point of being cruel to Judy, denying her identity, forcing her to play a role to gratify his erotic fantasy. As she sobs to him, 'If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?'
She is forced to be someone else to try and win his affection, to play a role. How often that happens in real life, that people have to lie about themselves, have to perform a part, to try and win the love of the people they love. Civilization forces us all to do that, really, to play a role, to lie, in order to try and win the love of others.
In this scene below, Scott finally persuades Judy to die her hair and pin it back like Madeline did. She emerges from the bathroom, and Hitchcock uses a camera technique so that she looks blurred and like a ghost. She walks forward, and it's like an eighteenth century phatasmagoria, where a showman would move a slide on a magic lantern to make a ghost appear to move towards the audience. Except this is a ghost that Scott can embrace, like Doctor Faustus embracing the ghost of Helen of Troy.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBMTC3x1xv4]There's an added twistedness to the film, in that Hitchcock himself was famously obsessed with a certain type of icy blonde, which appears in so many of his films - in Rear Window, played by Grace Kelly; in North by Northwest, played by Eve Marie Saint; in The Birds, played by Tippi Hedren. He was obsessed by this figure, erotically obsessed, and made his actresses act it out for him over and over in his films. So really, Vertigo is an exploration of his own perversion.
There's another fantastic moment at the end of the clip above, when Scott finally embraces the blonde Judy, and for a moment he starts to hallucinate, and to imagine he is in the tower kissing Madeline, as he did a year ago.
That's a very psychologically real moment. I remember, many years ago, when I had broken up with my girlfriend and was feeling haunted by guilt, I kissed another girl, who was slightly similar, and I looked up from the kissing, and the girl suddenly looked exactly like my ex-girlfriend. For a few seconds, it really seemed to be her.
We are haunted by ghosts. What is the original, the prototype, that we are chasing? Freud would say it was our mother. Hitchcock would probably agree. Or is it a relationship from a past life, some centuries-old relationship that we are doomed to repeat over and over until we get it right?
Perhaps the vertigo of the title refers to those moments, when we seem to view down the centuries, through past life after past life, the same relationships endlessly repeated, endlessly repeated, endlessly repeated...