So much has been written about the archetypical femme fatale in film noir. Whenever writers and commentators are invited to share impressions on the cinematic movement, it is virtually assured that the term ‘femme fatale’ will be among the first few employed for descriptive purposes. Meaning literally ‘the deadly woman’, she is as synonymous to noir as chiaroscuro lighting, cynical personas, damp urban landscapes, and, curiously, private detectives (the latter is regularly listed as a hallmark of the genre despite that there are far fewer flicks in which a private dick plays center role than most appear to believe). More often than not, the role of the femme fatale is an opportunity to chew the screenplay, to embellish a character’s devilish, duplicitous qualities. Subtlety is not exactly the name of the game. She is overt, she is a flagrant seductress, and she is the ultimate source of a man’s malcontent despite that upon meeting her he believed to possess the faculties to control the outcome.
In 1952, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director Henry Koster, adapted the Daphné du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel, which was published the year prior. With cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s extraordinary eye for expressionistic lighting and wonderful set design to bring the tempestuous English countryside to the silver screen, the film shares the tale of a love between a young man, Philip Ashley (Richard Burton), proprietor of a beautiful estate in Cornwall, and Rachel Sangalletti Ashley (Olivia De Havilland), a beautiful, slightly older widow to Philip’s recently deceased older cousin, Ambrose. Having been essentially raised by Ambrose, Philip was always very close to the former, and so it is with mixed feelings that he learns of his cousin’s marital union with an Italian woman while away in Florence. Whilst initial correspondences sent back home are ripe with positivity, they eventually tempt Philip to believe that his new cousin Rachel might have brought death upon Ambrose under mysterious circumstances. He invites her to visit shortly after their common tragedy with the objective of prying a confession out of her. What happens next is far beyond what Philip could have ever imagined.
Irrespective what some might conclude upon first glance, there is a lot of noir in My Cousin Rachel, despite the absence of any American characters, the lack of a labyrinthine city, or private eyes. As previously stated, the film’s cinematography consistently leaves one in awe for its bold, painterly depictions of the Ashley estate, both in and around the house, awash in stark black and white, where the brightness is often the only ray of hope in a home that feels condemned to witness the downfall of its tenants. The shadows are as dark as night, inky like few other movies can accomplish, so much so that several scenes would feel just as much at home in a gothic horror yarn than a romantic drama. As such, director Koster’s film certainly looks a lot like noir.
It also develops very much like a noir even though one of its key components is played with in a manner that does not, in fact, align with what aficionados are accustomed to: the all important femme fatale. Whereas in most pictures the vixen that sows the sad fate of a male protagonist is played in brazen fashion, My Cousin Rachel opts to keep its cards very close to its vest. More to the point, once the titular widow makes her entrance, there is nary a moment throughout the remainder of the picture when the viewer can conclusively state that Havilland’s role is that of a master manipulator or just a beautiful, sophisticated yet ultimately unfortunate woman who is a problem magnet. There are a few scenes where it becomes palpably tempting to declare her a pathological criminal, yet just as many others that muddy the waters. Is she a devil in disguise or isn’t she? Havilland herself puts in one of the finest performances her of career, quite the feat considering the praise showered onto her for so many memorable roles in movies like To Each Their Own, Gone with the Wind, The Dark Mirror, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Her Rachel is intelligent, tender, warm, and maybe, just maybe, a brilliant puppet master. But then again, we are never quite sure enough.
Not helping matters in the least are two other critical factors. For one, it is revealed that the Ashleys have a bad history of illness in the family. Knowing that, it could very well be that Ambrose slowly lost his mind in the final months and weeks of his life. Second, young Philip quickly falls under Rachel’s charms (without her ever openly trying to seduce him). He grows infatuated with his guest, more than willing to allow her a handsome allowance, asking that she stay as long as she likes, and, on the day of his 25th birthday, officially leaving the estate to her. Not once but twice does he ask her hand in marriage, much to her bewilderment and shock. Twice she refuses him as diplomatically as she can, but is it because, with thousands of pounds and a gorgeous house all to herself, she has finally obtained what she sought, or because she legitimately cannot condone matrimony with the brother of her dead husband, something few normal human beings would take kindly to anyways. His thirst for Rachel sees the young buck grow somewhat impetuous himself, to the dismay of the estate executor and family friend Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton), with whom it was believed Philip might one day fall in love with.
My Cousin Rachel refuses to makes the charming guest’s intentions clear, leaving viewers out in the cold as to who exactly is the worse figure of the two: Rachel or Philip. If Rachel actually seeks lavish riches at the price of destroying a family, then one can save some empathy for Philip despite how flippant and abrasive he has become. If she is as innocent as she claims to be, then Philip has simply gone mad like Ambrose, unable to discern truth from fiction, allowing his heart to lead his mind astray in a spiral of self-destruction. Some might consider this aspect to be the film’s flaw given that it can appear as though the movie itself doesn’t really know how to treat its characters, their behaviours regularly suggesting shifting intentions, but always only suggesting. On the flip side, that same ingredient is the film’s most potent driving force, organically finding new dramatic beats to hit precisely because no one can tell what lurks behind Rachel’s winning smile. That interpretation means that Philip is doing most of the damage himself.
Could Rachel therefore not be considered another variation of the femme fatale? What of the woman that unintentionally has men reap their own destruction or concoct their own misery? The traditional version of the femme fatale is much easier to identify, in addition to being rather amusing and titillating to watch on screen. Truth be told, Rachel’s presence at the Ashley estate causes much disruption, yet if she does not hide ulterior, nefarious motives, then only so much blame can land on her shoulders. What sort of femme fatale does that make her, therefore? In fairness, so many of the terms borrowed to write about film stem from male interpretations of said films. Describing the ‘femme fatale’ feels like a particularly male exercise, plunging film theory into another debate about the sexual politics of film criticism. Be that as it may, nary has there ever been a woman that stirred so many complicated emotions in a male protagonist than Rachel Sangalletti Ashley. Take My Cousin Rachel in and find your own answers.