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The Vertiginous Sublime: Hitchcock’s Vertigo & Proust’s Search

(An essay I wrote for Professor James Stone’s Hitchcock class at UNM):

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a haunting examination of the effects of erotic idealization and the struggle to recreate lost splendor. The film follows “Scottie” Ferguson’s initiation into obsession, the loss of his object of desire and, finally, his doomed quest to recapture/recreate his dead love. The film, based on the French novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, contains two names which provide a possible link to Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time. Vertigo, whether this was the intention of Hitchcock and the authors of the source novel or not, reflects many of the same concerns as Proust’s epic. The change of genres, from modernist novel to mystery film, produces interesting variations on the relevant themes.

Both names which suggest this connection between the two works belong to the focus of the protagonist’s pleasure and pain. Madeleine’s last name is introduced in the scene in which Scottie tells Midge about the call he has received from Gavin Elster. When she repeats these words, Scottie muses, “Yes, funny name.” Whether he is referring to the first or last one is not clear. However, this repetition indicates there may be an allusion the viewer is being invited to notice. In Within a Budding Grove[1], Proust introduces a painter by the name of Elstir. This artist creates paintings which rely on the use of optical illusions. These paintings, more often than not, suggest the waves of the sea at the nearby Balbec resort. Elstir also, significantly, initiates the novel’s narrator into the world of women as figures of erotic/romantic interest. It is in his studio that the narrator meets the girl who will become the center of his own obsessions. Gavin Elster runs a shipbuilding company. His office opens onto a view of a dock and is decorated with paintings of ships at sea. In this room, the protagonist will be invited to enter a world of strange sexual passion and agony. Elster is a painter as well: not only does he “paint a picture” for Scottie, with his story of the possible possession of his wife, he also creates a persona of this phantasmic woman and uses his own lover as his canvas. Furthermore, paintings appear both as significant clues (the portrait in the museum) as well as revealing character attributes (Midge’s recreation) throughout the film. Interestingly, Madeleine’s last name in the source novel is Gevigne. Though the authors of Vertigo’s script would understandably change it for American audiences, why chose an equally foreign sounding name?

It is Madeleine’s first name, however, which points most vividly toward an intentional game of literary allusion. Proust’s major theme is the recovery of past experience, and the trials of the narrator in his search for the best method in which to do this. His narrator stumbles (quite literally in one scene) across a way in which the past can reveal itself in something close to its full glory: associational memory, as experienced in otherwise trivial occurrences which replicate or rhyme with previous sensations. The first realization of this portal to the past comes while he is eating a cake dipped in tea, the taste of which lets in a flood of childhood reminiscences. This cake is known as a madeleine. Scottie’s Madeleine is a confection of sorts as well: this persona, baked by Elster and Judy, was designed and served with Scottie’s palette in mind. Her costume and mannerisms work almost like kinky ritual, addictive ingredients. Scottie’s memory of her will prove to be an anchor in the past. This, though, is a destructive one. The hovering presence of this persona, persisting past its apparent death, binds Scottie with bonds of guilt and forever frustrated erotic longings. Madeleine seems ready to become once more manifest in Scottie’s world, popping up all over San Francisco after his suspiciously un-detailed “recovery” from his paralysis. Unfortunately, this taste will not linger: these Madeleine’s prove again and again to be pretenders, optical illusions, products of divergent recipes.

This city-roaming search, as well as its erotic particulars, has its Proustian corollary. Scottie finds a realistic, streetwise woman on which to inflict his ideal. Judy appears tawdry and shallow compared to the vanished lady, but within her beats the same heart that powered Madeleine. Scottie forces the transformation on her, unconsciously using her guilt and hidden love of him against her desire to interact with him as herself. Similarly, in Proust’s novel the narrator develops a love-hate relationship with Albertine Simonet, a somewhat rough young woman whose personal habits and vulgar tastes often bewilder her fussy lover. He tries to mold Albertine into the image of his own ideal, alternately despairing and rejoicing over both her resistance and her compliance in his desires. When he loses her, he spends years roaming through streets, acquaintances and memories trying to recover a sight of her true identity, as well as looking for evidence of her infidelities. Like Scottie, the narrator loses Albertine to a literal fall, though both works also suggest a fall of a moral sort. Scottie’s experiences with Madeleine and then with Judy split the processes of idealization and disappointment into two relationships, though a straight reading of the film collapses both into one through the body and mind of the “real” woman.

Scottie tries resurrecting the ghost of his desire in the flesh of an actual woman. Proust’s novel acknowledges the folly of such an endeavor, aiming instead for the recapture of sensations and their re-inscription within the body of a work of art. Vertigo may be read as a disastrous attempt at the same quest. Scottie’s mistake is that he cannot resign himself to enjoying the faintest traces of Madeleine’s lost sublimity in the person of Judy. Had he been able to do so, he would have ironically recaptured the woman herself[2]. The fault is not only his, though: Judy let herself be used as a canvas, first by Elster and then by Scottie. In Search of Lost Time and Vertigo center on many of the same themes, producing affects appropriate to their generic niches: sad though fruitful resignation in the one, mystery and tragedy in the other. They both evoke the vertigo of the sublime in whoever approaches their depths.


[1] The second volume of his novel, this is also translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

[2] Though never, of course, the fully recovered “person” of Madeleine.

By Matthew Pridham

I write horror stories as well as film and book reviews. I've been published in Weird Tales Magazine, Tor.com, weirdfictionreview.com, and thethoughterotic.com. My primary interests are modernist fiction, world domination, the horror genre (classic, avant-garde, modern), polyamory, and philosophy of every stripe. Favorite authors include (but are far from limited) to Marcel Proust, Ramsey Campbell, Martin Amis, Thomas Ligotti, Ruth Rendell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clive Barker. I grew up in Bergen, Norway as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I've attended the University of New Mexico and CU Boulder.

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