Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.–Madeleine Elster
Vertigo (1958) directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a captivating, timeless movie with much psychological depth and is truly a masterpiece of its time and origins. I will analyze Vertigo in two sections: Themes and Technical Achievements
- Women Who Don’t Exist
The gap between an image and woman is literally blurred in this film. Women are literally portrayed as objects of art.
John’s and the audiences’ first encounter with Madeline is in a striking green dinner gown and on closer inspection from the panning of the camera, her side profile is emphasized. This deliberate emphasis on her side profile becomes relevant later on in the film when John closely observes the painting of Carlotta for the first time.
At this pinnacle point in the film, the audience realizes that Carlotta is Madeline, not in terms of literal identity, but Madeline is a piece of art just like Carlota. Madeline displays these characteristics similar to that of an art piece by being easily accessible, breathtakingly attractive, a passive object for the male gaze, and entirely inaccessible as a human being.
Madeline has no personality or definable human characteristics, which makes a character like John able to project his personality and desires onto her.
Madeline attempts to suicide by throwing herself into the SanFransico Bay and without hesitation, John saves her from drowning. When Madeline wakes up, she is nude in his bed and her clothes are hanging to dry. This scene is extremely erotic for both the viewer, but the intent was to express the fact that John had to unclothe her to save her. This scene is significant because this is the closest John will ever get to his object of desire without breaking that illusion of perfection.
When John helplessly touches Madeline’s hand when he offered her coffee, he unconsciously surrendered to her and becomes more and more lost in her illusion. John is quickly smoldered by Madeline not just because she is extremely attractive, but also she is shrouded in mystery.
This mystery has everything to do with her suicidal tendencies and her drive for death.
The question he asks during their trip to the forest is “What made you jump?” John is fascinated with this alluring depth of life or loss thereof and this is what drives his attraction to Madeline.
In Lacanian theory, the idea is that Woman do not exist. Woman is but a symptom of man as subject. The fact that Woman as an ideal object does not exist makes her one with the Thing, the fantasy and the non-existent object-of-desire. As a result, Woman equals Nothingness. In Vertigo it becomes painfully clear that Woman does not exist. This is the lesson that John will have to learn in order to be cured from his vertigo. (link)
2. Doubling: Judy and Madeline
John collapses after Madeline’s death and is traumatized to the point of hospitalization. Once he recovers, he sees Madeline in everyone and everything he encounters. Eventually, John sees an intense resemblance of Medline to a woman named Judy.
After a conversation with Judy, John asks her to dinner and Judy agrees. At this time, the audience understands that Madeline is indeed Judy and that the whole suicide was faked.
The point of contention is when Judy tears up the letter that explains the truth to John and she hopes John would eventually fall in love with her real self. Despite Judy’s uncanny resemblance to Madeline, John eventually starts to make bizarre demands.
John asks Judy to dress like the late Madeline and to change her hair color. He says, “It couldn’t matter to you”and this confirms the idea that his ideal woman does not have a will of her own. Judy gives way to these demands because she becomes hopelessly in love with him.
So are we dealing with one or two women?
Hitchcock uses the following formula: at first one pretends to be something, but eventually one will find out that one really is the thing one only pretended to be at first.
Once John finds out he got fooled by Judy/Madeline, he sees the gap in his reality and the depth below.
Judy: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
Scottie: Yes. Yes.
Judy: All right. All right then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.
I eventually will do an analysis of Midge because I believe she is an interesting character. She is the foil and mirror to Madeline and I will leave that up to interpretation for now.
Hitchcock’s Technical Achievements [unfinished]
-Expression as Dialogue and communication with audience
Hitchcock, Alfred. 1958. Vertigo. Universal.