Jazz pianist/singer Ana (Cohen) is profoundly affected by her father’s (Howard Vernon) suicide shortly after her engagement. After calling off the wedding, Ana leaves her homeland on Madeira Island only to undergo several failed relations when she intermittently becomes hypnotically driven to kill any man that becomes close to her.
It isn’t just enough to say that Ana is haunted by images of her dead father in the mirror. She doesn’t just see him, but she finds herself at times in the mirror, in Franco’s looking glass world. It can also be viewed as Ana’s mental reflection on her emotional trauma. The memory of her father’s suicide driven by his stubborn disapproval of her marrying and leaving him is intertwined with Ana’s psyche, manifesting itself when she murders any man that shows any sexual interest in her. Ana’s traumatization, spurned the moment of her outcry into the mirror, yields a malediction that could either be viewed as some sort of curse or spell from her father’s ghost or played off as the result of a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder. If taken at face value, the goose bumps inducing ending, made more dramatic with church bells signifying the wedding that never was, reveals which one happens to be the case.
The story is versatile and multilayered. Each time Ana stabs and kills a love interest, it usually feels like the end of an act or episode. After murdering her jazz friend, Bill (Robert Woods), someone seemingly new, a stage play director Miguel (Ramiro Oliveros), who Ana appears to already be acquainted with, is sporadically mixed into the story. Likewise, an impeded attempt at Ana killing herself yields the introduction of a new female friend, Carla (the majestic Alice Arno). With Miguel and Carla, we don’t see when or how they were introduced to Ana, yielding the notorious “who’s-this-person-all-of-a-sudden?” feeling. It makes it seem a little fragmented but not necessarily disjointed, as the story does maintain continuity with leitmotifs and staying focused on its eye catching lead character and her tragic journey that stems from her past trauma.
The characters of Pipo (Philippe Lemaire) and Tina (Franςoise Brion), a vacationing couple in Madeira, are introduced late in the story, the start of a new act (act 3 maybe?), when Ana goes back to Madeira Island for the first time since her father died. The tone shifts and the story seems like it might be a little distracted from its initial focus. This is not necessarily an offense because it corresponds to Ana going through personal changes and new developments after surviving suicide, as she claims to want to rediscover Madeira as a tourist, suggesting a fresh start, which is what the film is starting to feel like at this point. Pipo’s immediate interest in her, despite the fact he’s supposed to be with Tina, is consistent with Cohen’s attention grabbing screen presence.
I couldn’t help noticing that Pipo’s enthusiasm for the Brisa beverage he raves about to Ana, Tina, and Carla seems too exaggerated to not be an advertisement for Brisa, a tropical soft drink found only in Madeira. “Brissas, cooler than ice!” This forty-one year old product placement still works, because I’ve found myself interested in obtaining some. (here’s a place where you can order it: http://www.madeiratoyou.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=42)
Some of the extended Jazz numbers might take some out of the movie, but I came to appreciate them a lot more on subsequent viewings, especially after realizing how downplayed they are in the French and Italian versions of this film. It helps to be a fan of ‘70s era Euro club scenes and jazz music because it’s one of this film’s major focuses. Like Franco’s Venus in Furs, the lead is a cool jazz musician, and the musical performances feel like nifty music videos, which, although superfluous to the story, manage to be essential to the viewing experience.
What fascinates me most with Al otro lado del espejo is the way it integrates a poppy jazz song “Madeira Love”, written by, I’m assuming, the film’s soundtrack composer Adolfo Waitzman, into the story. The song is conceived, born, and eventually realized in the film, coming from the mind of its lead. It has two dominant melodies, a solemn downbeat passage (the verse) and a joyful upbeat melody (the chorus), that act as leitmotifs, emerging at different times under different guises. The song is also performed in full by Ana and her band at a turning point in the story. Just as a recurring melody can create an identity all its own for a story/world created for an opera, musical, film, TV series, or video game, the recognizable phrases in “Madeira Love” are a memorable thematic characterization of the film.
Cohen’s eyes have a natural sadness to them, attributed to a slight exaggerated outer downward slant in her upper eyelids, which lends a somber tone that compliments Ana’s tragedy. The movie’s occasional melancholic tone does, nonetheless, feel nicely balanced with some of the more colorful and upbeat aspects of the film, Alice Arno’s poolside dancing, to give an example; and Ana even has a few chipper moments.
It should be mentioned that Emma Cohen won the Best Actress Award from the Círculo de Escritores Cinematográficos for her performance in Al otro lado del espejo; and the full version of “Madeira Love”, performed by Ana and her band is a treat. However, in the French version, the voice is different during this song and doesn’t sound as good, and, sadly, this entire song performance is entirely cut out in the Italian version.
I’ve seen all three versions of this film, and I think the Spanish version (the one being reviewed) should be considered the definitive version, as it is the director’s cut. The alternate French, Le miroir obscéne, and Italian, Lo specchio del piacere, versions of this film seem to be the most viewed on account of usually being the easiest to come across. They differ significantly from the Spanish version, with the biggest difference being that they do away with Ana’s father committing suicide, replacing that aspect with Ana’s sister, played by Lina Romay, killing herself. Ana is instead haunted by images of her dead sister, who doesn’t exist in the Spanish version, in the mirror, committing obscene, explicit acts of sexual intercourse. As much as I don’t disagree with seeing Lina Romay, I don’t think this works as well and seems more like an excuse to insert hardcore porn shots into the film, cheapening it and being a possible reason for why this film hasn’t been more widely discovered and praised until more recently. I would recommend seeing the Spanish version, more than once, and only watch the other two out of curiosity (the DVD containing both Spanish and French versions can be bought here: http://www.artusfilms.com/le-miroir-obscene).
This film does have some parallels to A Virgin Among the Living Dead, most noticeable the spiritual connection between father and daughter, yet Al otro lado del espejo feels surprisingly down to Earth in comparison, likely attributed to the heavier focus on realistic relations between the characters. Howard Vernon, like Paul Muller in AVATLD, appears in the guise of his hanged self before his daughter, to creepy effect. An interesting difference is Vernon’s protruding tongue, which does happen sometimes in the case of strangulation by suspension hanging, as opposed to the instant death caused by cervical spine fracture with drop hanging, a method used more for execution that is less common in suicide.
Anyone feeling content with having only seen the French or Italian version should revisit this film by watching the restored Spanish version. The former versions really short change viewers both musically and conceptually and likely won’t strike a chord with harder critics. I wouldn’t call the alternate versions terrible in comparison, because I had felt pretty satisfied with what I experienced with Lo specchio del piacere and couldn’t quite understand why it was insisted that I watch Al otro lado del espejo as well, but after viewing it I realized it’s because the original intention is diluted with the alternate storyline, and to say the Spanish version works a lot better is not an overstatement.
© At the Mansion of Madness