"Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again"- the film Rebecca begins with one of those lines that almost sums up the entire sense of one of the characters. Its famous but it should be thought of more than it is- Joan Fontaine in that first scene talks about a dream she has about returning to the doomed and ghostly wreck of the house she once persuaded over- its significant that she describes it like a dream or as a tourist might on returning to a place that they had loved- for this second Mrs DeWinter is significant for the fact that she is always a tourist through the film.
To invert Marx's famous quotation- in the film history repeats itself first as farce and then as tragedy- the second Mrs DeWinter travels twice to a new aristocratic surrounding as a companion of an inhabitant of those surroudings. In both cases though the story might superficially end happily, it is not without cost- but the conclusion is the same in both cases Mrs DeWinter acquires a new companion- the first episode is interesting though and well worth analysing in itself for some indications as to the way that the second historical account plays out- as ever with Hitchcock the architecture of the film is crucial to getting a proper understanding of it.
Running through the Monte Carlo series of incidents is a comedy of misapprehensions and vulgarity. Hitchcock can be merciless in his mockery of older aristocratic women- a particular vicious example of the general species occurs in this film- this is the woman to whom Joan Fontaine is appointed companion to and she treats Fontaine's character with scorn and ridicule, barely acknowledging the personality that is sitting besides her, inviting all the rest of the characters to pay her young companion as little attention as she does- Fontaine during this sequence is wooed by Mr DeWinter- who woos her with a mixture of command and inscrutable generosity. By treating her as a person- talking to her, offering her breakfast- even as a subjugated person- he awakes her love. We know little about the second Mrs DeWinter but she is developed here as a person who merely wants recognition- even to be enslaved because that will recognise her personality as a slave. The film adopts the tone of her memories towards 'Monte' as her boss terms it: so its sarcastic and notes the vulgarity of her boss's folly, the cigarretes stubbed out in food (something Hitchcock was fond of repeating the motif in his later film, To Catch a Thief).
So we come to Manderlay- and so does Joan Fontaine. She comes in the company of yet another dominating personality- Maxim De Winter her new husband. Yet again he dominates her- completely overriding her personality. His family see her as unsophisticated, the servants resent her and her husband compares her to a child, upstairs maid and tells her never to grow to the age of 36. Her relations even with her husband are seldom natural. In a moment of sadness she says that she is 'gauche and inexperienced'. The truth is that she is gauche and inexperienced- treading uneasily onto everyone's feet- Maxim himself acknowledges that he is 'selfish' to her and isn't sure if they are companions. Mrs DeWinter though in this segment of the film is much less amused- much more tragedy and sadness dominates it- its an amazing depiction of the world as seen through an anxious mind and we can see that Mrs DeWinter really cares. The aristocratic characters with the exception of Maxim are no less repellant but they seem much more important.
The coldness of the aristocratic world is what Maxim wants to escape and its what Mrs DeWinter is trying to grow into being able to cope with. The end of the film though brings a third arc in the story- because Manderlay the symbol in the film of the family inheritance and aristocratic pride and deceitful relations based on unkindness and infidelity is destroyed. The only way that Mrs DeWinter and Maxim can acheive a relationship is by breaking the veneer of social relations- the only times they are happy is when they are alone away from the aristocrats of the rest of the caste- and hence the symbol of that class must be destroyed for them to become true companions. I mentioned two arcs in the film- there is actually a third- the third arc is the dream described by Fontaine in the first moments of the film, returning to Manderlay she sees its charm, its wonder as a location, the wonder of aristocracy that attracted her both to become a companion and a bride, then the bright lights flare up then a shadow appears and then Mrs DeWinter wakes. Wakes out of aristocracy into adulthood.
The film toys with all sorts of ideas about past and sexuality as well (Mrs Danvers Rebecca's maid seems to have a lesbian affection for Rebecca, handling her room and clothes with reverence)- but this structure of the three arcs and the way that Mrs DeWinter's story plays out through them is amongst the most interesting ways that the film plays with the idea of convention and its imprisoning effects- like an inverse Chinese doll, a poetic dreaming raphsody over the house of Manderlay expands into a comic interlude in Monte Carlo and then to a bigger vista at Manderlay itself- out of which Joan escapes to marriage- her outsiderness ends and so does her story.