The Anti-Catharsis of Marnie

| Eli Holm |

Tippi Hedren leans against a wall, looking offscreen, as Sean Connery stands behind her and looks at her in "Marnie."

Marnie plays at the Heights Cinema on Thursday, April 27. Visit for tickets and more information.

Warning: plot spoilers below!

Nobody does credits like Hitchcock. His masterpiece Marnie opens with a story book-style credit sequence, flipping through pages of cast member names with the always evolving score dominating the soundscape. Studying a single page (minus, of course, the actual credits), you see the red lining on the edge of each page. Couple that with the score that is oscillating between overly aggressive and subtly melancholic tonalities, and you will realize that Hitchcock is showing us who Marnie will be from minute one. He lets us know that Marnie, just like the credits, has a dangerous red seeping out of her posh performance.

A title card from "Marnie" with a red border on an off-white screen, reading "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock."

Marnie is about peeling back layers and showing the truth. The opening sequence reveals the reactionary mask Marnie is wearing, presenting herself as mysterious and unknowable; as a mask of male fantasy. But her true mission is to steal her way through male-dominated businesses to make a living. Her former employer, Mr. Strutt, furiously talks to the police about the robbery Marnie has committed, but when they ask him to describe her, he shows only an infatuation with her looks. He is both mad at her for cheating him out and fascinated by her presence. Men love to hate women who cheat them out. At the same time, they are consumed by these women’s outward mystique. “What drives a woman to cheat?,” but more importantly, “how can I make them mine?” are both questions that Marnie’s men pose.

The presence of men looms over the film, down to Hitchcock’s cameo where he spots Marnie walking down a hallway and stares at her before turning to the camera, flustered. Here, his cameo is about presenting his fantasy of Marnie, a character he created to deconstruct later on. But for right now, he gets us invested in the façade Marnie evokes and the mystery she shows (notice how we only see her backside during this opening). Even he, as the director, can’t help but get caught up in this façade. Male fantasy crafts Marnie’s exterior, and Marnie weaponizes this to get what she needs, but she loses herself in it—it’s a mask after all. When we don’t know what lies underneath our masks, we lose touch with ourselves.

A man in a suit (Alfred Hitchcock) turns to face the audience as a woman and a bellboy in a hotel walk away from the camera down a hallway.

The film itself is, in a way, constructed like a façade, which brings me back to the opening credits. The posh nature of the pages fluttering feels like an expensive storybook, much like how each piece of set design in the film feels fabricated and constructed. Every backdrop is a painting, every car ride is rear projection. The film world is fabricated and alienating, suffocating Marnie in a world of exteriors. But like every façade, that exterior is under threat to be shattered at any time.

To show the outward appearance breaking, the film language itself breaks. Whenever Marnie sees red-colored items, she goes into a panic, trying to wash away the pain of the memory this red represents. The film breaks like this each time that happens: the frame is enveloped in a red filter, the blood red memory spills out. The viewers are transfixed by the color, as it could potentially offer answers. But it also acts as a new terrifying presence in the film’s form. The opening credits offer us the red outright, lining the words on each page, ready to spill out of its detail as just a contrasting color and into something more insidious. Red becomes the color of incendiary memory. The fire of trauma burns, but confronting it means burning off the mask of comfort we give ourselves.

If red is the danger under the surface shattering the frame, then the film’s introduction of Rutland—a friend of Mr. Strutt who soon hires Marnie at his own company—is another shattering of the world. He will challenge both Marnie and the viewer to come to terms with the film’s truth. When mentioning his obsession with animals and their “instinctual behavior,” he motions towards a picture of a jaguar, saying he taught it to “trust him.” It foreshadows what he’ll be doing with Marnie and their relationship, taking her out of her “beastly” ways and turning her into a submissive housewife. He thinks of their relationship in this way; he will liberate her from her life of crime, all the way into submission for him. The mask Marnie wears will be dominated by another force from now on, burned off every time Rutland interrogates her, as well as the aforementioned red colors in the frame breaking the setting.

As Marnie and Rutland’s relationship develops, one of the more infamous moments in Hitchcock’s filmography happens. On their honeymoon, Rutland confronts Marnie’s biggest fear, the touch of a man. He undresses her, stripping her away of any comfort clothing can offer, and sexually assaults her. The camera captures Rutland as what he truly is—a monster. His eyes impose the entirety of the screen. Marnie is shattered. She attempts to drown herself, but when Rutland saves her, she remarks, “The idea was to kill myself, not feed the damn fish.” This is a telling line, illustrating her unwillingness to be used for somebody else’s gain, even in death. She wants to go on her own terms, not as food for another species. But alas, her own terms of a non-traditional lifestyle were only a mask, and they’ve been stripped completely. It’s both a fabrication of Hitchcock and a broader male fantasy. Just as easily as Marnie can use this mask to steal, the men can use their power to steal it back and turn her into nothing. It was never on her own terms.

The rest of the film plays like a chamber drama. Marnie, lost and confused about her place in the world, is interrogated even more by Rutland, who beats her into submission. The looming threat of male violence consumes Marnie’s fears. When the penultimate climax of the film happens and she is forced to kill her portal to freedom (her horse), she completely breaks.

A woman (Tippi Hedren) stares offscreen, bathed in a red filter.

Rutland brings Marnie to her mother’s house in an attempt to show her the truth of why she acts through kleptomania against his business partners and why she is androphobic. The sepia-toned nightmare of her childhood trauma finally shows, and the red blood spills fully. The reasoning for Marnie’s actions becomes apparent: as a child, she craved love from her mother, and when that love was taken by men consuming her mother as an object instead of as a loving woman, Marnie lashed out. She then spent her life cheating her way around men, too scared to face the red in full. At last, she can know peace, confronting a traumatic memory head on and coming out of it stronger. Finally, she sees the love of her mother. She is damaged, but she will be able to live on her own.

Except that’s not exactly how Hitchcock frames this. Instead of Marnie coming to terms about her trauma with the help of some sort of a good person, she is thrown into this catharsis by a monster. The first time I watched it, I felt good knowing Marnie could live happily as a real person. But the second time, I was sick to my stomach, realizing she was driving back into the façade headfirst. Rutland’s scheme was to use Marnie’s catharsis to have her submit to him, just like the animals he studies. The framed photo of the jaguar will now be replaced with one of Marnie.

In Marnie, Hitchcock shows us the fantasy girl of his dreams, and layers her in trauma of sexual violence and a hatred towards men. He turns cruel men into heroes in this story, at once glamourizing and villainizing the stereotypical businessman savior, thus creating the state Marnie exists in. Ultimately, the film is a contradictory, nihilistic tale of men promising to release the masks women wear in the patriarchy, while simultaneously pulling them further into these masks. Liberation first, but then, right back to submission. In the film’s final image, Marnie and Rutland drive into the constructed set as kids on the street sing a song. We are reminded of the childhood Marnie never got, but also of the darker realization that these cycles of male violence will continue to happen. The closing credits even suggest the wounds of male violence are still leaving an imprint on this world, as there is still a red lining around the frame. We are left with this chilling reminder; there is always red hidden in plain sight.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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