There is a vast narrative form that cuts across many genres: the Female Gothic. It is a genre with intricate variations and powerful founding ambiguities – and it stays ambiguous, whether or not the director at the helm is male or female, straight or queer. For instance, consider Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1996). That’s not much of a movie, and it offers a rather soft rendition of the Female Gothic; but some the basic elements of the form are still there, affecting and resonant in all their 19th century splendour.
There’s Jane (Charlotte Gainsbourg), soulfully pining for love and independence of spirit; and there’s the object of her desire, sad-eyed Rochester (William Hurt). Jane wrestles with the demons of her past and present, the gauntlet of social oppressions and humiliations that beset her, first as an orphan and then as a governess. It’s important for this classic tale that Jane is a clear, not ambiguous character; although melodramatic reversals of fortune and fate hamper her, she moves spiritedly toward the light of a new day. Rochester, however, has a far murkier past, mysterious and Gothic – and it has made him unclear, an ambiguous sort of double-image, a walking superimposition. Is he really a soulful, lovable guy underneath all the misery, or is he some kind of monstrous beast?
That's a moot, ambiguous point all by itself. But the true mystery is the nature of the woman’s desire for this man. Quite simply, which man is it she desires: the serene, deep, beautiful one, or the beast? What desire is involved in her wanting to tame that beast? Part of what is so tearing and so fascinating in films that portray this kind of desire is precisely the pressure on the central woman to choose one kind of man over the other – and the impossible dream of somehow having both kinds of man in one.
In tales of the Female Gothic, we usually have a woman who is positioned between two men, such as the righteous cop and the slimy businessman. Or she copes with a man who is two men in one: figures like Rochester, Clark Kent or Dr Henry Jekyll. As that list of chaps already indicates, the Female Gothic story can appear in many different guises. There are modern comedies like Susan Siedelman’s fascinating Making Mr Right (1987), where a woman (Ann Magnuson) deals with a repressed scientist and the zany robot that he is created in his own image – and both are incarnated by the same actor, John Malkovich.
We can go back a few decades in film history to all those mystery-thrillers of the 1940s with women in the leading roles, deeply influenced by the 19th century Gothic-Romantic model, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) or the that perennial property, Gaslight (1940, 1944). In a celebrated article discussing those movies (often dubbed the wife in peril cycle), Thomas Elsaesser suggested, in a Freudian vein, that they were full of “strange fantasies of persecution, rape and death – masochistic reveries and nightmares, which cast the husband into the rôle of the sadistic murderer”. Here you will recognise a classic plot device: the ambiguity as to whether a woman is just imagining that her husband wants to kill her or, in fact, she has rightly intuited some dark and terrible truth.
This idea of a woman’s terrible flash of truth – even if it comes in a fevered, paranoid or drugged hallucination, or in a dream – is at the heart of the Female Gothic. Because this truth usually implicates more than just one bad apple of a man, one mere cad or villain; it implicates an entire male order or system, an entire, steely, patriarchal regime that runs (variously and contradictorily) on reason, seduction and punishment. There are so many dark truths from the past that well up in Female Gothic stories: long-buried or repressed revelations about rape, abuse or betrayal. Sometimes, in the hallucinatory whirl of such stories, these personal revelations get connected to even wider evils: wars and nuclear bombs, even the Holocaust. But always, to the bitter end, no matter what horrendous truth is uncovered, there is still that ambiguity, a vacillation in the woman's desire: what peace, or what transgression, does she most want?
Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly also walks this line. Once again, it’s not a great film – although it's certainly better than the aforementioned rendition of Jane Eyre. Frears is a fine, classical director who always gives his projects a consistent, integrated level of style. But Mary Reilly is consistent to the point of ponderous repetition. It’s a deliberately theatrical piece, occasionally evoking some ancient West End production of Gaslight. While one establishing shot of a misty, dank street or laboratory is effective, 50 such shots over two hours is overkill.
But, at the very least, it did get me thinking. Mary Reilly is what the movie trade likes to refer to as high concept: it presents the classic story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as told through the eyes of Jekyll’s housemaid, Mary. This housemaid is played by Julia Roberts, and Jekyll & Hyde is “Mr Right” again, John Malkovich. He can be one very odd, mannered actor, but I have enormous admiration for his method. Even from the trailer for this movie, you can tell that his hushed voice, cold face and especially emphatic enunciation of each syllable are going to give Mary Reilly its most memorable, chilling moments.
Alongside Malkovich, Roberts is required to play the wide-eyed innocent. Her performance is somewhat one-note and wearying, but her character is not totally blank. Mary has that doubled-edged quality, that mixture of fear and desire in her eyes. She dreams of being taken by the beastly, beautiful Hyde in the night; she wakes with a jolt next to her friend, another household maid, and tells her it was a bad dream. “Didn’t sound so bad to me”, the friend comments with her wry, worldly wisdom. Mary also suffers shocking memories of the treatment she received at the hands of her ugly father (played with grossness by Michael Gambon). And then, as you might expect, these dreams and memories start to become confused: in an amazing scene, a girl runs from domestic danger into the street where she encounters Hyde, and is immediately stomped to death by him.
What is the mystery of the male, patriarchal order as embodied by Jekyll in this film? I don't think the script by Christopher Hampton (writer and director of Carrington ) focuses on this question as clearly as it could, or should. Jekyll is (as often) the male rationalist, the inventor – a man who represses his natural erotic feelings for Mary. He is also, in the Rochester mould, a man who suffers the melancholy of mysterious “ills”, which he refers to as a “fracture in his soul”. Hyde is Jekyll’s “beast within”, the monster, his Freudian id at last unrepressed. (A far more spirited and extreme version of this template is advanced by Walerian Borowczyck in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne ).
Hyde is certainly an extremely attractive man in Malkovich's rendition of him. But this eroticism goes along with all the usual, vague histrionics about how he is also horrible, evil and rapacious. I don’t think Hampton and Frears ever quite work out what they want to make of the Jekyll/Hyde split – nor of the desire of Mary for this doubled male archetype. That’s a pity, and the film suffers for it; but anyone drawn to the contemporary resonances of the Female Gothic form will want to check out Mary Reilly.
Note: My most developed exploration of the Female Gothic genre is in the “Lady, Beware” chapter of my book Mysteries of Cinema (2018).