A few years ago when my children were much younger and we were too skint and tired to go out much, we started catching up with classic movies and foreign language films we’d never, but should have, seen. Our LoveFilm subscription was well used during these years. Flicking through the “films you must see” lists identified a Hitchcock sized gap in our knowledge of his back catalogue which we worked hard to plug. Vertigo is a particularly disturbing one and based almost frame by frame on the chapters in this book (although the ending is different) by French crime writing duo Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.
This is less a classic crime thriller and more a claustrophobic, psychological melodrama dripping in behaviour so obsessive it drives the main character, Flavieres, to the brink of madness. His innocuous task, carried out as a favour to an old friend, to follow and observe the friend’s wife who is behaving oddly and thought to be suicidal, swiftly spirals into stalkerish obsession with this ethereal creature. Even his eventual friendship with this woman does little to tone down his increasingly bizarre means to remain close to her. Several years later he impossibly catches a glimpse of her once more, setting him on his previous destructive path.
The stifling atmosphere of this book is made even more stark by the references to German invading forces moving ever closer to Paris and the later depressing descriptions of the post-war state of that beautiful city. As Flavieres’ behaviour becomes more desperate, he begins to unravel, he’s unhinged, so the pace picks up hurtling the reader forward to witness the tragic end you know must be coming; I read the last pages through the gaps between my fingers, like I watched the end of the film, not really wanting to read/watch but having a gory fascination with needing to know how it all ends.
As a character Flavieres is rather pathetic, but I had enormous sympathy for him. He is used so abominably and thrown to one side by someone he thinks of as a friend. Over the course of the book his personality changes immensely because of this woman who he believes will alter the course of his life; she does have that effect, but not as he’d imagined. And here’s the cleverness of this twisted psycho-drama; as you read on, you know this sort of thing could happen to any of us. Brilliant.
Pushkin Press have released a series of 20th century European crime fiction named after this book. The Vertigo series jacket artworks are all similar to this one; bold colours and overlaid text very reminiscent of mid-century modern designs. Check them out here.