It’s hard to say what the worst thing is about Rebecca, Ben Wheatley’s lavish yet weirdly empty adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It might be the moment our nameless heroine, played by Lily James, has some sort of psychedelic episode at the ball that she has organised and then gets lost in a cupboard. It could be Armie Hammer, who plays the aloof, grieving Maxim de Winter as a Brylcreemed hunk whose personality has apparently been lost at sea along with his first wife. Or perhaps it’s Hammer’s linen suit, which brings to mind the flapping monstrosity sported by David Byrne in Stop Making Sense – only, in this case, it’s the colour of custard.
The film, about a young bride who is haunted by the spectre of her husband’s late wife, is a stinker alright. It was largely panned on its release at cinemas last week. Even the trailer, which had all the intrigue of a perfume ad, was the subject of endless mockery. Of course, none of this stopped me from inhaling the film when it arrived on Netflix two days ago, even if I had to bite down on a stick to stifle the screaming.
Not everyone will loathe Rebecca; some may reach the end and wonder what all the carping was about. But it is perfect fodder for a hate-watch, a practice reserved for those of us with a masochistic streak and too much time on our hands. The hate-watch isn’t a new thing: I’m pretty sure it’s what all three hours and 30 minutes of James Cameron’s Titanic were created for, and it’s definitely what drew the crowds to see Cats at the cinema last year, despite critical notices that served as public health warnings.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum coined the phrase when she described Aaron Sorkin 2006 series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as a show viewers “loved to hate-watch, because it was bad in a spectacular way – you could learn something from it, about self-righteous TV, speechifying and failed satire and the dangers of letting a brilliant showrunner like Sorkin run loose to settle all his grudges in fictional form”. The hate-watch shouldn’t be confused with the guilty pleasure (a flawed concept, by the way. Why feel bad about something you love?). Where guilty pleasures allegedly lie in one’s enjoyment of lowest-common-denominator entertainment, the hate-watch stems from astonishment at a film or TV show’s excruciating blunders.
All this has been further enabled by our multiplatform world in which, for streaming companies, quantity is invariably prized over quality and in which every week brings a fresh wave of allegedly unmissable content, some of which will delight but more will inevitably fall short. The hate-watch has also come into its own in the age of social media. We are no longer restricted to blowing raspberries at a film’s failures in the company of close friends and loved ones. Instead, strangers are united online via billowing plot-holes and atrocious acting, and communities created out of mutual loathing and snark. Everyone’s a critic now.
You may recall the rapturously cruel welcome given to the comedy-drama Emily in Paris a fortnight ago. In fairness, the series, which follows a supposedly adorable young woman from Chicago as she starts a new job in Paris, is absolute bilge, with the majority of gags predicated on the fact that Emily doesn’t speak French (mon dieu!) and the notion that French people are awful (They smoke! They swear! They serve their steak rare!). Twitter couldn’t get enough of it and the reviews were gloriously scathing. At the time of writing, Emily in Paris is number three in the Netflix Top 10.
All of which might suggest that, for streaming platforms, there are rewards to be reaped from churning out sub-standard programming that makes us gnaw our fists in mortification rather than stroke our chins in appreciation. Why bother crafting a critical masterpiece when you can hit the commercial jackpot with glossily produced, bum-clenching tat? Certainly, in the case of Emily in Paris, it’s tempting to interpret a scene such as the one where our heroine arrives at her top-floor apartment, takes in the view and announces: “The entire city looks like Ratatouille!” as little more than audience trolling.
Hate-watching is fun but could the success of risible dramas really spark a race to the bottom among commissioners? I doubt it. No actor or director wants their masterwork to be a laughing stock, unless they are dealing in unapologetic trash – think blockbusters such as Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado, which fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category. More pointedly, achieving the qualities required for the ultimate hate-watch isn’t necessarily easy. For a series to function on that basis, the premise must be seemingly watertight, the ambition to make something good genuine and the collective delusion among the show’s creators off the scale.
There’s little doubt that in adapting Rebecca, Ben Wheatley and his cast wished to honour du Maurier’s book – and at the very least equal Hitchcock’s 1940 version. That they haven’t achieved this is a shame. And the joy that comes from watching a genuinely brilliant film far outstrips the grubby pleasure of a dog’s dinner. It’s a fine line between love and hate but, as with a good romcom, we know that love must prevail.