The Problem with Marnie

When I finished watching Marnie last week, my first impulse was to tweet something snarky about it like, “James Bond uses his rape-powers to cure mental illness” or to note how lack of sex makes you crazy. But the more I think about this deeply flawed story – especially Tippi Hedren’s convincing performance – the more I realize it needs some real analysis.

If you haven’t seen it, you’re probably not reading even this far, but just in case: Marnie is the story of Marnie Edgar (Hedren), a young woman who goes from job to job – changing identities each time – in order to gain her employers’ trust and ultimately rob them blind. She also freaks out anytime she sees the color red and has horrible dreams about hearing a knocking sound and being cold and something about her mother. This is somehow connected to her mother’s withholding affection from her her whole life (while shockingly lavishing it on a young neighbor girl). Marnie’s got problems. Deep ones.

Enter Sean Connery as Mark Rutland, the owner of the latest company Marnie’s targeted. He’s also a client of one of her earlier victims and has met her before, but the movie’s secretive for a while about whether or not he recognizes her, or vice versa. Ultimately, he falls in love with her and slowly begins to discover her issues. The rest of the movie becomes about whether or not he can fix her, while also uncovering the mystery about the event that traumatized her as a child.

Rutland claims that he’s doing this out of love for her, but it’s a weird kind of love. Connery’s in full, smoldering James Bond mode here: all suave and masculine; not really showing any emotion, but claiming that he loves Marnie and by God you’d better believe it or else. Since she won’t accept his help right away, he blackmails her into marrying him and holds her hostage; first on a Honeymoon cruise where he rapes her (she attempts suicide the next morning), and then on his massive estate. It’s a horrible, tumultuous relationship, made only slightly bearable by a scene in which an exhausted Marnie temporarily break-downs and begs for help. Hedren’s so convincing in that moment that she sells the idea that this is the real Marnie, so whatever Rutland is doing must be working. That’s a problem for me, because it means that Rutland’s not just a mean character who I can despise while taking in the rest of the movie. It means that the movie itself is endorsing his behavior.

Listen, Marnie’s no innocent victim here. I mean, she was at one point, but she’s a grownup now and she’s unwilling to take responsibility for her actions. I don’t want to describe her as a saint whom Rutland tortures while twirling his moustache. It’s a complicated relationship and I don’t know what I would have done in Rutland’s shoes. I certainly wouldn’t have done what he does, but if I was in love with a disturbed woman who refused all help? I reckon that movie would look more like Blue Valentine than Marnie. Oddly (and sort of unforgivably), Marnie is the one with the happy ending.

Something else that’s difficult to take is the movie’s attitude about sex. And by “the movie,” I really mean “society in the ‘60s.” Marnie’s lying and stealing are occasional activities, so while they affect her negatively, the message of the film is that they’re not her most important problem. That would be her aversion to sex; what people used to call “frigidity.” Unkind people in Marnie make puns about her being cold and how it’s Rutland’s job to warm her up. They don’t know how deep her aversion goes, but they know something’s wrong. Women are supposed to at least have the decency to pretend to like sex. Withholding from your husband – even a blackmailing one – is just weird.

Mad Men gets a lot of praise for its exploration of gender roles in the ‘60s and I imagine it’s deserved. I haven’t seen it yet, in part because I’m not sure I want to be reminded about gender roles of the 1960s. I probably should anyway though. If it’s a good discussion with some insightful points, that’s actually right in my wheelhouse. What I’m afraid of is that it’s just going to say, “Look how bad it was for women back then,” which is something I’m already pretty aware of and want to move away from rather than dwelling on it. It’s that frustration at thinking about women trapped that way that makes me so irritated by Marnie. With men like Rutland, it’s no wonder she was so fond of her horse.

(I was going to let that be the last sentence, but thinking about Marnie’s relationship with her horse led to my realizing that her hairstyle says a lot about her in the movie. Most of the time, when she’s in polite society, her hair is up; very formal. When she rides, away from people, she lets it down; feeling complete and finally able to be herself. I think I may have fallen in love with her too.)

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