Vertigo (1958)

Spoilers: The major plot twist and ending of the film is discussed at length.

The moment in Vertigo for me will always be Kim Novack exiting the bathroom, her metamorphosis complete, a phantom image made flesh: the resurrection of the dead Madeleine Elster. Except there never was a Madeleine Elster, or at least not the Madeleine Elster retired detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) fell in love with. The tragedy of Vertigo is not that the death of Madeleine happens twice, it’s that Scottie falling love with a woman who never existed twice.

While both tragic love stories are technically part of one overarching romance which evolves over time, the two relationships are quite distinct in essential aspects that suggest and convey different things about the nature of the romance. When Scottie falls in love with fatalistic and suicidal Madeleine, he’s actually falling in love with an act. He’s been setup as the fall guy for a murder, the woman he follows is the actress Judy Barton. The nature of this deception offers at least two tragic suggestions about the nature of doomed romance.

The first point is the notion that what is presented is not what is real, the ruse Madeleine presents she later admits in the second half was based in some truth, but also fabricated in order to make Scottie fall for the con. Therefore, all Scottie is presented with is the soft, venerable woman he’s supposed to want to save in order to appease his own ego. He’s so blinded by the illusion he’s unable to see the truth or his own inhibitions slowly falling apart.

The second notion, while similar, is distinctly different because it involves Scottie not so much falling in love with Madeleine as a person, but Madeline as an image. After the real Madeline dies and Scottie takes the fall, he’s left seeing images of Madeline in every blond stranger, often from an abstracted distance where only the most basic form can be seen. On some level, it’s simply a persistence of the character’s psychology, but as this lingering afterimage turns into the second half of the romance, it becomes clear that it’s the image in and of itself that is important.

Vertigo takes a dark turn into the chilly and uncanny when Scottie stumbles across Judy and begins trying to construct her into Madeleine. Of course, the truth is that she played Madeleine, but while she tries to be her own self in the hopes Scottie will fall in love with her again, he continually manipulates and controls her into becoming his image of Madeleine, obsessing over her having just the right clothes and hair to become Madeleine once more.

And while this close reading of the core relationship provides these rich nuggets of the complexities and perversions of their romantic relationship, there are wider implications. Vertigo is more than simply a mysterious romance, it’s a self-reflexive act that deals with romantic as portrayed in film. In fact, I would go so far as to call Vertigo the great critique of mediated depictions of romance.

The film attacks on the front end the presentation of the ideal, mysterious woman, that perfect, passionate romance elicited by the soft, vulnerable woman who must be met by the strong, protective arms of a man. While the two leads do fall in love with each other, their romance is built around a fabrication, a lie, a deception which dooms their relationship to end in trauma.

On the back end, the film critiques the obsessive control the media exerts over depicting idealized and romanticized women. When Scottie meets Judy as she is, she’s a nice looking girl, not a knockout, but certainly attractive. But for Scottie, it’s not enough. He must fabricate his fantasy into flesh; manipulate his woman into a divine goddess. There’s no denying Kim Novak is a beautiful woman, but the allure she’s presented with, topped off with the radiating light when she exits the bathroom underscores just how much the film is heightening and accentuating her beauty beyond reality.

Vertigo only becomes more poignant and timely as media images of women are pushed to even further extremes of expectations. Digital manipulation coupled with cosmetic surgery enables these images of women to become even more idealized and unrealistic. And with climbing divorce rates and more and more people ending up becoming disenchanted with idea of romantic love, Vertigo’s message is even more essential than ever.

But what’s the solution? Is every relationship simply doomed? Is it all just a fabrication? While Vertigo is a tragedy, there’s still a beautiful, honest relationship in the midst of it all, the friendly familiarity of Scottie and Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes). It’s not the relationship with the sizzle and surprise of Scottie’s fatalistic romance, their beyond a place of high expectations, but it’s a relationship that the film gives us as more stable than the torrential collapse of Scottie and Madeleine’s doomed affair.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing