Was Rachel an accused innocent or a devious femme fatale?
That’s the question Daphne du Maurier’s fans have been asking since she wrote her novel, My Cousin Rachel. Though not as well-known as Rebecca, it has the same gothic overtones, and intense obsession.
The film adaptation of 1952 takes us into the mind of its wretched hero, Philip Ashley. An orphan adopted by his beloved, benevolent cousin Ambrose, Philip lives a blissful existence until Ambrose must travel to Italy for his poor health. There, he meets and falls in love with Rachel, a mysterious woman who has a strange effect on him. Philip notices that his letters become more paranoid, secretive, and even seem to suggest he is in danger. By the time he arrives in Italy, his cousin has died and Rachel has disappeared. Suspicious of this, he inquires whether she got her hands on the family fortune, and the answer surprises him—she did not, and his cousin made no changes to the will.
A few months later, Rachel arrives in England and, hoping to spring a trap on her and confront her with his cousin’s accusatory letters, Philip invites her to the house. But rather than the sinister creature he imagined, he finds Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), generous, sweet, composed, and disinterested in wealth. She loves to make tea and accepts none of his gifts except to borrow them. Soon, his interest turns into an obsession… of a romantic kind. She fills his thoughts, his heart, even his arms occasionally, while remaining above him and enigmatic. But just as he seems to plunge over the cliff of his romantic attachment, the paranoia returns. Rachel is not who she appears to be. Or is she?
Though I had heard many wonderful things about this film, until this blogathon I had never taken the chance to see it—it’s almost as eerie and memorable as du Maurier’s other adaptation from around the same time, Rebecca (which stars Olivia’s sister, Joan Fontaine). I love how the film never quite tells you whether Rachel is innocent or guilty, but we discover clues alongside Philip to suggest guilt, while her actions themselves suggest innocence. Olivia gives a wonderful, charismatic, somewhat sinister performance—incredibly sweet and generous in the first half, and increasingly distant and even mercurial in the second. It’s quite a leap from her swiftness to return an expensive family necklace at the first objection from Philip’s uncle, an attorney, and a later scene where Philip accuses her of something, and, in a smug tone, she asks if he will try to “throw me out of my own house.” By then, he has given her control over everything and… the woman who has no interest in money, has not given it back to him!
The clues woven throughout start showing up early… a sudden interest in tea, her being an active herbalist, the strange plants and beans found in a locked drawer in her room (why locked?), the claim that Ambrose did not try to alter his will, then the discover that he had done so, but died before he signed it… But the true cleverness is not just in her performance, but in Philip as a character himself. He shows active shades of paranoid disorders, obsessive disorders, and manic-behaviors—wild mood swings, episodes of over-trust despite his own judgment, and erratic callousness followed by tenderness. He can even become violent in moments of extreme distress, which leads Rachel to state that she would rather never be alone with him again. A modern psychologist might classify him as bipolar, though the script seems to imply he may suffer the same “brain madness” that killed his uncle (a hereditary brain mass that also took his uncle’s life).
This makes Philip an unreliable narrator, so the audience can never be sure of what happens between him and Rachel when alone, as opposed to when others are present. Because of his paranoia, we have an inbuilt distrust of her from the start—so the audience seeks to see if anything sinister lies beneath her tranquil appearance. We find it strange alongside him that she does not want to keep his gifts, that she has no interest in money, that she appears to have a gentle, sweet, and giving nature. But things here and there may suggest that Rachel is, in fact, innocent, in opposition to Philip’s madness. Namely, that after something awful happens late in the film, as a direct cause of his paranoia, Rachel asks him “why” he did it. Plus, her secret letter from her Italian friend admits that she has Philip “deep in her heart.”
Because the story never reveals the truth of what happened in Italy, or whether Rachel’s tea is poisonous, we are free to decide whether she’s guilty or innocent, a predator (and there are evidence-based reasons to go with this supposition) or a victim of a man’s jealous obsession. If you have never seen it, you are in for a moody, surreal treat. Don’t cheat yourself out of the mystery… which you get to solve yourself.
I wrote this article as part of the Olivia de Havilland Blogathon. Please click below to visit the main post and read the other entries.