BY CAMILLE GUITTONNEAU
Adapted from a 1954 novel by Boileau and Narcejac, D’entre les morts, Vertigo is a 1958 thriller movie by Hitchcock. John, a former police chief who had to quit because of his acrophobia, is hired by an old friend, Elster. Elster wants John to spy on his wife Madeleine. Madeleine is allegedly possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother, Carlotta. John and Madeleine fall in love but Madeleine commits suicide. Months later, John meets Judy, who reminds him of Madeleine. As a 20th century Pygmalion, he transforms Judy into Madeleine. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a film about the gaze. Vertigo distorts John’s gaze. John looks up and down in order to defeat acrophobia. Madeleine looks at Carlotta’s portrait. John looks at Madeleine.
Vertigo: a film about The gaze
How acrophobia distorts the gaze
John suffers from acrophobia. Every time he looks down, his gaze is distorted. In order to get rid of acrophobia, John tries to climb a stool. On each step, he starts looking up and down, which confirms how important the gaze is.
Eyes reflect the gaze
When John wakes up from his nightmare, his eyes are those of a mad man. He is hallucinating, which remind the spectator of Madeleine’s gaze every time she was possessed by Carlotta. A few days later, while John is resting at the psychiatric hospital, his gaze is empty.
The male gaze
John is a male chauvinist. Not only does he consider himself as Madeleine’s saviour, but also he forces Judy to date him just because she reminds him of someone he loved. Judy, as a woman, is alienated by John’s gaze and behaviour. Fortunately, Midge depicts the changing role of women in the 1950s American society by refusing to get married to a man she is not in love with and not bothering to wear a hat when she goes out.
Vertigo: a film about Art
The Pygmalion and Galatea myth
Not only is John is a male chauvinist. He also is a Pygmalion. When he meets Judy, he decides to transform her into the woman he loved. Judy is Galatea. John will not kiss Judy until she looks exactly like Madeleine. Once he has achieved his masterpiece, he falls in love with her. He is in love with an image, not a person.
Classical art in Vertigo
As John is spying on Madeleine, he adopts the spy gaze. There is a mise en abyme between the classical portrait of Carlotta Madeleine admires at the museum of fine arts. Just like Carlotta, Madeleine is holding pink roses. Just like Carlotta, Madeleine made a spiral in her hair. John stares at Madeleine, a modern Carlotta staring at the true Carlotta. And the whole pursuit is just a scenery set by Elster to murder his wife. The scenery is a mise en abyme of a movie.
Carlotta’s portrait appears several times during the movie, including as a mockery by Midge, who is an artist.
Vertigo: a film on the edge of Op Art
Classical art meets Op Art
John’s dream is a mix of classical art, with the reminiscence of the portrait of Carlotta, and modern art techniques such as cartoon and Op Art. Besides, Madeleine is a classic woman who matches stereotypes perfectly whereas Judy is modern. Yet, Madeleine’s bun is reminiscent of spirals, a component of Op Art. Op Art atmosphere becomes blatant when John meets Judy. The costumes and sceneries are different, resulting in very different atmospheres.
|Nude make up||Sophisticated make up|
|Grey suit||Green suit|
|Black dress||Purple dress|
|Does not work||Does work at a department store|
|Classical art (museum)||Op Art (hotel room)|
Both atmospheres are reunited when John achieves Judy’s metamorphosis. Obviously, Madeleine appears in her grey suit, blond bun and nude make up in Judy’s hotel room.
Vertigo prefigures the advent of the Op Art movement. Op Art (short for “optical art”) is an artistic movement born in 1955 that became very popular in the 1960s. It combines optical and kinetic techniques. Optical artists resort to optical illusions, colour effects, mirror effects, and lighting effects. The Op Art movement became an inspiration source for many film directors in the 1960s and 1970s, including Kubrick, Clouzot and Demy. Optical and kinetic art gaze confuses the gaze just as acrophobia makes John’s gaze confuse. Acrophobia results in vertigo. So can optical and kinetic art. The spiral is reminiscent of vertigo. The spiral in overture were drawn by the Whitney brothers using a pendulum. The pendulum technique relies on kinetic laws. It is very typical of the Op Art movement.
Apart from John’s dream, the hotel room scene when Judy accepts to transform into Madeleine is a good example of Op Art. Obviously, the lighting effect in the hotel room is crucial. Such lighting effects can be found in rushes from Clouzot’s 1964 unachieved film: L’Enfer.
Just like optical artists, Hitchcock also resorts to mirror effects several times. Mirrors are often used in optics, a field of physics. They became a major tool for optical art.
So did the use of colour effects. The first time John sees Madeleine is at a restaurant whose walls are red crimson. Madeleine is wearing a green silk dress. According to physics, red and green are complementary colours.
Vertigo has its roots in several art movements. Not only is Vertigo a thriller, but also it is a kinetic and optical work of art that prefigures the Op Art movement. Hitchcock is a painter who paints a kinetic and optical thriller. His gaze would become widespread in the field of cinema for two decades.