Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Other Side of the Mirror / Al otro lado del espejo (1973)

Jess Franco could film movies faster than I can write reviews for them. His films can sometimes have an overwhelming low quality feel to them, making them difficult to digest for the majority. The natural location shots, haunting tone, memorable and well-chosen female actors (Franco definitely had an eye for female leads that just seemed to resonate with the camera lens), and Franco’s brand of bizarre surrealism and eroticism don’t seem to be enough to save the films for many, but they are nonetheless a huge hit for others. Al otro lado del espejo contains all of the aforementioned elements and yet has a higher-than-usual quality feel to it, most likely due to the terrific acting and screen presence from its leading lady (Emma Cohen of Horror Rises from the Tomb and Night of the Walking Dead) and a believable tragic story.

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


8 comments:

  1. Great review! This film pointed me to Emma Cohen and now I want to see more of her films. Her eyes are so pretty, you can see those intricate flaws in her irises. Her performance is very intense, I love how Ana ranges from being a shy introvert to a cheerful extrovert. All the actors do a great job; I also liked Ramiro Oliveros and Alice Arno. It's unfortunate that Arno didn't feel confident in her acting since she's really good in this (as well as in her other Franco roles).

    The variations in the main themes were nicely done. My favourite scene would have to be when Ana finds out about Bill's death and performs the mournful tune that she played after her father's death. The way the stage is lit against a dark background really emphasizes her somber mood. I thought the French version of the Madeira Love scene was okay but it's ruined by an abrupt cut in the middle of the song.

    Speaking of Madeira, I would love to go there some day! It looks so vibrant with its lush flora and fauna. The mountains also look beautiful when shrouded in mist (as seen in Female Vampire). Legend has it that you'll fall in love there like the song suggests.

    If there's a flaw in the Spanish version, it would have to be during the third act when we hear the voice-over of a woman talking to Tina. This bit really confused me because I wasn't sure whether it's Ana talking to Carla and the writers got confused and accidentally called Carla, Tina. Or if it's Carla pouring her heart out to Tina (since it didn't sound like Cohen). I suspect it's the latter but the Spanish credits even mistakenly swap Alice Arno's and Francoise Brion's credits. It's only a minor flaw though, and the rest of the film is of a surprisingly high quality (and this is during the low-budget de Nesle period!). Now I don't want to oversell the film by saying it's THE best Franco film but it's definitely up there. I'm sure many of the Franco detractors would be surprised by this version (though they'd probably watch the French version instead). Again, excellent work as usual!

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    1. Many thanks, Terence! I may’ve praised the hell out of Cohen, and it was all well-deserved, but I also agree that all of the actors are terrific, and we really did get a different side to Alice Arno, here. When you get the chance, try to watch The Lustful Amazons, a movie also made in Madeira around the same time that also has Arno, Lina Romay, Robert Woods, and, someone I forgot to mention in this review, Wal Davis in some pretty over the top roles. The film is extremely entertaining even though I didn’t see it dubbed or with English sub titles.

      I love the Madeira location shots in this one. I had seen several of Franco’s movies filmed in Madeira but didn’t know it until now, since the location was so relevant to the film. Have you seen the ‘then and now’ shots from filming locations in Madeira that were posted on The Latarnia Forums a little while back?: http://thelatarniaforums.yuku.com/reply/158516/Re-Jess-Francos-Madeira-then-and-now

      I know what you mean about the voiceover in the third act. It starts with Pipo talking to Ana in voiceover about politics and Mussolini and all of a sudden a female voiceover cuts in. Naturally one would assume this to be Ana, but it isn’t. The female is talking about a character named Sandro. I took the time to look back and there is no Sandro in the movie, so it’s a character outside of the narrative. It’s confusing and needs clearing up. The female voiceover, like you mentioned, is talking to Tina, so because Carla and Tina are walking together ahead of Pipo and Ana, on their way to the swimming pool, I assume the person talking is Carla. In the next scene, Carla is lamenting to Tina about someone she cannot live without (Sandro I presume). It’s out of context and seems irrelevant but this point sure seems interesting to talk about. It’s likely that the intention of the writing was to keep Tina distracted so Pipo could try and connect with Ana.

      Thanks for pointing me towards the Spanish version of this film, Terence. I would’ve probably remained ignorant forever if it weren’t for your recommending it.

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  2. Well you've completely sold me on this one, so I added it to my watchlist and will try to get a hold of the Spanish version. The integration of music sounds particularly fascinating, and I loved Emma Cohen in Horror Rises From the Tomb and Cannibal Man. Brilliant review as always, your attention to detail is second to none.

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    1. Thanks, Jonny! I had previously known Cohen from Horror Rises from the Tomb and Night of the Walking Dead, though I still need to see Cannibal Man. I always remembered those strange, sad eyes. Yes, I rave about the soundtracks a lot, but this one isn't only good, it's very relevant to the story and is applied so well that it makes up the essential identity of the film.

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  3. I have a copy of both the French and the Italian versions of this flick and haven't watched either, as they're of absolutely wretched image quality, and now, having read this, I'd rather just wait until I can get my hands on the Spanish version. Oh, well. That's how it is sometimes with Franco. He is, however, worth the work (I just had a look at MIL SEXOS TIENE LA NOCHE a week or so ago, and it's a real keeper).

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    1. I actually do enjoy some of the ‘80s era Franco films with Romay, such as Mansion of the Living Dead and Macumba Sexual, and Night of the 1000 Sexes sounds like it’s worth tracking down, and I believe I will do just that. Thanks for reading and the recommendation. As for The Other Side of the Mirror, there are decent looking Italian and French versions currently on YouTube (the French version is unfortunately, incorrectly listed as being the Spanish version), which you could probably check out, but take care not to forego eventually seeing Al otro lado de espejo to see the way the film was is supposed to be.

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    2. I wasn't fond of MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, but MACUMBA SEXUAL is some of Franco's absolute best. I've been getting back to writing about non-Walking Dead stuff (if not necessarily non-zombie stuff), and NIGHT OF THE THOUSAND SEXES may end up as my next piece (I prefer to write about issues rather than just writing reviews, so who knows?). The flick is definitely worth your time.

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    3. Macumba Sexual is the better of the two, but there's something about Mansion that I can't put my finger on that really creeps me out, despite that it feels like a daft sex comedy at first. You have a talent for writing about issues, J, and your latest zombie article is spot on with regards to the significance of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and I share your views about the later trends in the zombie genre: http://cinemarchaeologist.blogspot.com/2014/05/depth-of-dead.html

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