Madeleine – a Gothic tale for Glasgow?

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As the GFT welcomes monsters, ghosts and the macabre from across the world as part of BFI’s Gothic season, there’s a tale from closer to home which must surely give us pause. It contains all the ingredients of a classic Gothic chiller – dark desires, forbidden territory, murder – and it happened only a stone’s throw from the GFT’s very doors. The true story of Madeleine Smith – the aristocratic Glasgow woman whose dangerous liaison caused a scandal in Victorian society – was brought to the screen by David Lean in 1949. It starts off with a pan across Glasgow’s contemporary skyline and concludes with the locus: No. 7 Blythswood Square, where Madeleine was accused of fatally poisoning her French lover, Emile L’Angelier, with arsenic-laced cocoa in 1857:. Given the distinct class difference between Madeleine and Emile, their relationship was slightly precarious for the time. In terms of reputation, the upper-crust Madeleine had more to risk than lower-class Emile and Lean captures the forbidden nature of their trysts by showing them meeting discreetly in the shadows, under moodily-lit stairways, by flicker of candlelight.

Yet, after barely a third of the film, Madeleine calls time on these crepuscular couplings as if whatever spell enchanted her is suddenly broken. The passion and lust she so quickly felt for Emile is snuffed out as we discover the Gallic charmer has just as quickly transformed into a monster. Aggressively demanding, he threatens to expose Madeleine’s ‘double-life’ and blackmails her with revealing to her father their X-rated love letters and, in doing so, anticipates a James Bond villain when he grabs the family cat, stroking it with a maniacal grin. So, does the audience now sympathise with Madeleine? She appears to have fallen victim to a vile bully who has trapped her to ensure his own financial ascension and social mobility. And, in the Gothic tradition, she could be regarded the damsel in distress, the ‘imperilled heroine.’ But, at the same time, if she has already begun plotting the monstrous end to Emile, surely she’s more femme fatale, or ‘smiling, damned villain’? Considering how icily cool Anne Todd portrays Madeleine, it is extremely hard to say. This was exactly what the Monthly Film Bulletin criticised Lean for, arguing he took ‘a live story and robb[ed] it of all feeling and humanity, so that what is served up on the screen is cold, remote…’ In fact, what is so chilling about the portrayal of Madeleine and L’Angelier is how difficult they are to read. One moment L’Angelier pleads for an introduction to her father, the next he is violently emotional, threatening that “we shall marry into your life not mine.” Meanwhile Madeleine is so inexpressive, saying very little, yet she appears to glide on screen as if virtuous, almost angelic, in her light-coloured clothing which contrasts so strikingly with L’Angelier’s dark suits. But, as he says to her, “your looks are deceptive” and, later, on her way to court a comment from within the crowd: “her heart is black.”

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Unfortunately, Lean’s film – like the true criminal case – offers no conclusion on any of these questions, laying them open to interpretation, just like Madeleine’s enigmatic look. This look appears on a few striking moments in the film, but none has the compelling potency of its final manifestation. Having been dismissed with the uniquely Scottish verdict ‘not proven’, Madeleine is free. She leaves the Edinburgh High Court, passing through the baying crowds in a horse-drawn cab. The camera gazes upon her while the narrator booms out: “Madeleine Smith, you have heard the indictment. Were you guilty or not guilty?” She looks right into the camera, her visage expressionless. Nothing hints at her relief or anxiety, perhaps because that would imply remorse or guilt. It is a piercing look which could be said to reappear in Hitchcock’s famous end to Psycho when Mother/Norman Bates sits staring straight ahead motionless and apparently ‘harmless’. And as the camera fades to blackness, Madeleine still remains impenetrable. Noel Coward attacked Madeleine for what he described an inconclusive ending. He conveniently forgot that, in reality, the charge against Madeleine was inconclusive. But it is precisely this uncertainty, this type of open-endedness, this deeply unsettling unknown, which gives the best kind of horror stories their spine-tingling impact and enduring power.

by Neil Johnson-Symington