In Honor of Chris Marker, a Vertigo Thought Experiment

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07/31/2012 9:58 AM |


The legendary French filmmaker, artist, leftist, cat fancier, second lifer and enigma Chris Marker, who died just a few days ago, also wrote one of the best, most eccentric readings of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Reading it, I started to think about the movie—how all of its many eccentricities, absurdities, contrivances and plot holes each deepen its unfathomable mystery.

For this reason, Vertigo is a fun film to play around with: it’s already so strange, no eccentric interpretation can undermine the force of his drama. Quite the opposite, in fact, for its strangeness is the source of its profound and eerie resonance.

Inspired, I started to advance my own fanciful counter-reading of the film on twitter yesterday afternoon, and want to follow through with it here.

So, I’d like to propose a thought experiment: The next time you watch Vertigo, try watching it under the assumption that the real Madeleine Elster and her working-girl doppelganger Judy Barton have traded places before the start of the film, a fact never uncovered by the men on screen.

If you assume this, the plot still works, but the meaning and inflections change considerably. In that case, here is what Vertigo is a film about:

A wealthy San Francisco society woman named Madeleine believes her husband, Gavin Elster, plans to murder her. She finds an office girl, Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. She offers Judy an opportunity to trade places: the promises of wealth and ease are so compelling to Judy that she never considers why this Madeleine is so eager to swap identities.

Madeleine, dyeing her hair brown and living as Judy, sees all her worst fears confirmed when her husband Gavin, not having noticed the switch, approaches her and hires her to impersonate his wife Madeleine—to impersonate herself.

Poor Judy is killed, thrown from atop a bell tower by the man whose husband she had pretended to be.

Her hired job completed, and fearing for her life as the crime’s only real witness, the real Madeleine returns to life as Judy, but, hoping to expose her husband, she allows herself to be spotted by Scottie Ferguson, who had followed her when she was impersonating herself, with plans of helping him to expose her husband Gavin.

But moved by Scottie’s love of the woman he had followed—who was, after all, not just her but herself—she allows him to dress her in the vestiges of her wealthy self, despite the trauma of dressing once again in the guise of her murdered self, and the danger of resurfacing in the city of her husband.

When she dies, confronted by Scottie over her role in Gavin’s murder plot, she is wracked with guilt over her role in the murder of the innocent Judy—undertaken out of self-preservation, but still.

Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo was advertised at the time as a dual role, which is achingly true but not actually literally correct: in Vertigo, as we commonly understand it, Kim Novak plays Judy Barton, though for the first portion of the movie Judy is pretending to be Madeleine Elster. (We in the audience, like Scottie, only see the “real” Madeleine once: when she plummets to her death at the film’s midpoint.)

In my version of Vertigo, though, Kim Novak also plays only one role, but it’s Madeleine—though when Scottie follows her in the first half of the film, Madeleine, having begun posing as Judy prior to the opening credits sequence, is now posing as Judy posing as Madeleine.

So. What kind of movie is this new version of Vertigo? Well, it is still a movie in which the Kim Novak character allows herself to be obliterated and made over in the image of Jimmy Stewart’s ideal—still reluctantly, but not just out of love and fear but also out of abandon to an ideal that was partly of her own creation. It is still a movie about love as nostalgic obsession (Marker’s key insight was that the film was about the “vertigo” of time rushing past), but the nostalgia is also Madeleine’s. It’s a film in which female identity is still contested, and one in which men with their love wield a power they’re helpless to control, but one in which the women enter into love and role-play with a more acute, cunning sense, whether happily or unhappily borne, of their identity as essentially a transaction.

Or maybe all of this is already there in Vertigo as we know it. My point, I guess, is that Vertigo‘s is ambiguous enough to encourage, and complex enough to productively refract, readings with no support from what’s onscreen or the stated intentions of its makers.

My version of Vertigo leaves one question unanswered, though: I can’t help wondering, in this version of Vertigo, if Madeleine’s plot is kept secret from us for the duration of the film because Hitchcock chose to preserve around the core of the film one last layer of perverse mystery—or if Madeleine’s plan was kept even from Hitchcock himself.