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  • Under Capricorn and the Hitchcockian Melodrama of Trauma, Recovery, and Remarriage
  • Sidney Gottlieb (bio)

Under Capricorn (1949), like many of Hitchcock’s best films, and in fact all three of the films that he made with Ingrid Bergman, revolves around the axes of disintegration and reintegration. It is a stunning portrait of (to allude to a later film that glosses it in intriguing ways) a “woman under the influence” and her uneven and strenuous effort to navigate through and beyond extraordinary pressures: from inside, forces of circumstance, and intimate relationships. The signs of Henrietta’s disintegration and distress are readily apparent, memorable, and often commented upon. Less so are the signifiers of her recovery, which occur in a roughly linear sequence.

As I move through some of the key images and scenes in the film, I’ll organize and discuss these signifiers in several categories, which are discrete but also overlapping: changes in the way Henrietta looks and is looked at; her return to visibility, to herself and others; her transition from immobility to animation, passivity to action, including taking control in ways that reflect not coercive power but the restoration of executive functions and compassion; her return to speech, and especially narrativity, that is, the ability to tell and accept her story; her re-entrance into society; and the repair and transformation of her relationship with her husband, through a process that qualifies as one of remarriage as outlined in another generic context by Stanley Cavell.1

I have several aims in mind in focusing on all this: to be sure that these details and these plots beneath the plot, as it [End Page 39] were, are noticed and given proper attention as we analyze the overall design and meaning of the film; to highlight the complexity, subtlety, and artistry but also the accuracy of the presentation of these elements; and also to argue for a particular understanding of what “recovery” means in the film—the achievement of real health, happiness, mutuality, and self-determination, emphatically not reintegration into or cooptation by an apparatus of conventional structures, codes of conduct, values, and “rules of the game.”

Recovery from what? In a word: trauma. It is essential to recognize that, as Raymond Bellour points out, “the question of trauma and of its interpretation” is at the heart of Hitchcock’s films.2 For Hitchcock, trauma is a subject particularly suitable for cinematic representation, dramatization, and analysis, perhaps not least because he identifies it as a fundamental element of human experience, a disturbing fact of life not to be avoided and not to be forgotten. In Hitchcockian terms, trauma is both a sign and result of the eruption of the chaos world, and although his focus on trauma is sometimes taken as evidence of cruelty and misogyny, I think on the contrary that his lifelong interest in presenting images and telling stories of women (and men) under extreme duress is characterized by real sympathy, concern, and insight.

The accuracy, precision, and effectiveness of the presentation of trauma and recovery in Under Capricorn are remarkable. Where did this come from? It’s worth briefly identifying three sources. The genius of the system is always evident in Hitchcock, and by that I mean the collaborative components of his films. The source novel is not a study of trauma in the way the film is, but sets up much of the scaffolding for and some of the critical events that figure prominently in the film. For all of Hitchcock’s criticism of the screenwriters, we can safely assume that James Bridie and Hume Cronyn contributed something substantial to the shaping of this film’s portrayal of trauma, a subject certainly worth further study. The contributions of the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, in visualizing Henrietta’s state of mind, the details of the traumatic conditions that continue around her, and the stages of her recovery certainly need to be acknowledged and [End Page 40] analyzed, as Ed Gallafent does so expertly in his essay on the film.3 And Ingrid Bergman’s acting is surely one of the most important reasons why Under Capricorn is not “only a movie,” as Hitchcock often archly claimed, but “more...