I’d not ever seen this film before, but knew all about it; the term “gaslighting” has become common knowledge in the days of #metoo and Gamergate and jerks being jerks to women online. But those modern associations are why there’s a scene at the end that felt so viscerally satisfying.
Just in case – Gaslight is the tale of Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), who is a teenage girl living with her opera singer aunt at the very top of the film. That is, she was – the film opens on the night of her aunt’s murder, after Paula has discovered her body. The police kindly lead her past the curious throng waiting outside her aunt’s London townhouse and into a carriage, where the avuncular police captain tells her she’s being taken in by her aunt’s old vocal teacher in Italy. It’s a chance to start afresh, he tells her. We then jump forward ten years to find Paula quitting her music lessons because she’s fallen in love with the class accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The professor releases gives them his blessing, and the pair quickly tie the knot. Paula dreamily looks forward to a life with Anton in a city like Paris or Vienna – but Anton is strangely insistent on moving back to London. In fact, hasn’t Paula inherited her aunt’s old house?….why not live there?
Anton further suggests that they could move all of her aunt’s things into the attic and board up the door so Paula doesn’t have to look at it all the time. While they’re packing it up, Paula comes across a love letter from someone named Sergis Bauer, written to her aunt two days before her death. She starts reading it out loud, baffled – and Anton seems unusually freaked out and roars at her to stop. He tries to laugh off his reaction as “oh, sweetie, I just hate to see you dwelling on icky stuff like that,” but Paula is understandably alarmed. Anton brushes her concerns off – she’s just overreacting!
Dismissing Paula’s concerns becomes something Anton does a lot. When Paula senses the new maid really doesn’t like her, Anton brushes it off as being all in her head. When Paula can’t find little things around the house that she could swear she’d just put down right there, Anton suggests that she’s been getting kind of forgetful lately. When Paula keeps thinking she hears noises from the attic at night, Anton says that’s impossible – is she sure she’s not dreaming? Or hearing things? She’s been getting kind of forgetful lately, maybe something’s wrong with her?…
Anton persistently chips away at Paula’s sense of reality, making her doubt the things she sees, hears, and does, and even her own memory. He keeps her at home constantly, turning away any visitors on the pretext that she’s sick; the isolation makes Paula feel even more unmoored. Finally things get to the point where he even contradict’s Paula’s memory of the letter from Sergis Bauer – “you said you were reading a letter, but there was nothing in your hand in the first place!”
Fortunately, the goings-on at Paula and Anton’s house have attracted the attention of a busybody neighbor and a young detective from Scotland Yard, who suspect something’s up – and as Anton is chipping away at Paula’s sanity, the detective is working to get to the bottom of what’s happening with Paula – and whether it may be connected to her aunt’s murder.
It may be because I’m familiar with Gaslight’s premise, but I knew right from the start that Anton was pulling a fast one on Paula. But even though I knew all along, it was still hard to spot exactly how he was pulling some of his tricks off, planting evidence on her person or stealing it out of her room without Paula (or us) catching him. For most of the film, something definitely seems off about him, but he has frustratingly plausible deniability for most of the film. Bergman plays Paula beautifully; even her freakouts avoid complete histrionics and hit exactly the right tone.
And that’s why the very last scene is so, so satisfying. I’m going to warn you that this is a spoiler for the ending, so stop now if you want to watch first.
….So, yeah, Anton’s been manipulating Paula the whole time; he’s on the hunt for some jewels that are hidden among her aunt’s things. The detective catches him in the act, telling Paula that Anton actually is Sergis Bauer, and is also her aunt’s killer. The detective tied Anton to a chair in the attic while they wait for a paddywagon to carry him away, and suddenly Paula asks for a moment to speak to him alone. And almost as soon as he walks out of the room, Anton begins to sweetly appeal to the early days of their love affair, begging Paula – for old time’s sake – to set him free so he can escape. Paula….has some things to say about that.
Up to this point, the term “gaslighting” has had an unpleasant 21st-century-social-media association for me – where women who make complaints about powerful men get disbelieved and accused of fabricating the whole thing. So when I saw this scene – a cutting tables-turning moment of “I know precisely what you did, you ass-sponge” – I was watching with a giddy grin on my face.