October 2, 2011

Love Hurts... Especially When You're Dead

The Sweet Sound of Death (aka La llamada, 1965)

Whatever happened to serious romance in the movies? Of course social norms and attitudes change, sometimes quickly, but the concept of romantic love has been around for centuries, if not millennia. So then, how is it that we've gone from Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942) to Bridesmaids (2011) and What's Your Number (2011) in a little over half a century? Are we all so cynical and blasé in the 21st century that romantic love can't be portrayed as anything other than a joke (and usually a gross one) in the movies? (Okay, in spite of my strong dislike of the Twilight series and all the other dreck in the "but vampires have feelings too!" subgenre, I will concede that it treats romance seriously… in a very lame sort of way. So lame, in fact, that it might be seen as some sort of subtle in-joke.)

Some might pin the decline and fall of romantic love on the youth revolts of the 1960s, which, in rejecting the norms and mores of the previous generation, elevated "free love" at the expense of romance. Hollywood got the ball rolling early in the decade by tearing down its own icons. Former glamor queens and romantic leads like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became diabolic shrews and monsters in such cinematic treats as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), and others. It wasn't enough for the new generation to reject the old-- it had to tear the seemingly glamorous mask off of the older generation and reveal the hideous, decaying monster underneath.

So, it's a bit odd to see a film from the freewheeling '60s with a couple of very attractive young leads that takes romantic love so seriously-- deadly serious, you might say. But then, The Sweet Sound of Death (La llamada) is a very odd, very weird little film. The lovers in this fateful drama are Pablo (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) and Domenique (Dyanik Zurakowska), two university students studying in Madrid. He is Spanish, she is French. After about a year together, they are very much in love. The university is on holiday, and she's getting ready to take a flight back to Brittany to visit her family. He pouts, but she reassures him it will only be for a week-- her clannish and traditional family insists on seeing her at certain times, no questions asked. Teasing her a little, he makes a big deal of how mysterious and fog-shrouded Brittany is, and how the people all seem to be ghosts and witches (if only he knew!).

They take a drive out in the country, and come upon an old, abandoned cemetery. She is drawn like a magnet to the place. As if sensing the future, Domenique becomes morbidly reflective. In the midst of weathered monuments and tombstones, the beautiful young woman tells Pablo that she's attracted to death-- "I've always thought it the state of perfection for all men… I think death is good to a person, and death is kind… I like its peace, and its mystery too."  It's a credit to Pablo that he doesn't run gibbering from the cemetery and this strange young woman, but then, she's almost ethereally beautiful.

Domenique makes her beau promise that "the first one who dies must come back from the beyond and prepare the other one for the hereafter." For love's sake, a very uncomfortable Pablo makes the pledge. Gotta love those weird, unearthly Breton women! Away from the malign influence of the creepy cemetery, their mood brightens, and they talk of wedding plans on the drive back to Madrid. Domenique takes her flight to Brittany.

Later that night, driving through the streets of Madrid, Pablo is hit with a very strange foreboding. The radio in his car cuts out, and he realizes he can't hear anything at all-- no street noise, no nothing. He pulls the car over-- the world is suddenly a cocoon of silence --  until he hears the roar of a jet plane coming closer and closer. There's a flash of light and the fearful sound of a crash… and then silence. This horrific sound is anything but sweet.

Domenique tries to convince Pablo that
death is good and kind.
His worst fears are confirmed when he calls the airline and finds out that his love's plane has crashed. There were two survivors, a man and a woman, but the information about their identities is still sketchy. The airline promises to get back with him as soon as the survivors are confirmed. Sick with worry, he waits for the call (la llamada). He gets a call, but not from the airline -- it's Domenique, and she's alive! They meet in their favorite park in Madrid and all is right with the world… for a short time. The first inkling that things are not as they seem occurs at a roadside inn as they dine. A little boy accidentally throws his toy airplane into the fireplace, and Domenique retrieves it easily from the roaring fire. Perplexed, Pablo crouches by the fire and tries to imitate his fiance's actions-- the fire is too hot, and he burns his finger.

Back at Domenique's favorite hangout, the cemetery, she tries to convince Pablo that she's really dead and has fulfilled her pledge to return and prepare him for the hereafter. He's having none of it, of course, since she's as real and tangible to him as anything in the surrounding world. The lovers return to Pablo's apartment. A telegram from the airline arrives, but Domenique convinces Pablo not to open it. Pablo takes a shower, talking of a leisurely trip to the country, but when he gets out, his fiance has mysteriously disappeared and the telegram has been burned.

Pablo visits the airline office in person and is told that Domenique's name is indeed on the list of those killed in the crash. He learns that a body identified as Domenique's has been shipped to Brittany for burial. An airline official is sympathetic, but Pablo is too upset to take up his offer to investigate further. He wanders back to their favorite park, where a young boy passes on a message from Domenique, who has just left. She must make a date in Brittany that "makes her sad."

Not quite believing his senses and not sure where to turn, he finally decides to look up a trusted mentor, a professor at his medical school.  Pablo describes his eerie experiences, and the sympathetic professor agrees to accompany him to Brittany to find Domenique and solve the mystery. Before the trip, the unusually open-minded academician admits that science doesn't hold all the answers: "If eternal life does exist, it's undoubtedly as real as the life we know as mortals, but as to its nature, the theologians have to be allowed the last word-- not science."

The professor approaches Domenique's
fog-shrouded ancestral home.
Pablo doesn't grasp quite how prescient the professor's words are until he meets with Domenique and her eccentric relatives at the forbidding old family estate (see the clip below).

Sweet Sound presents a very original take on love and ghosts. The ghosts in this Spanish production are not incorporeal phantasms floating down hallways or stairs, but instead are as solid and real as any of the living -- it's just that they inhabit a different, and darker, realm. Director Javier Setó cleverly inverts the world of the living and the dead with his camera work-- the daylight world of the living is washed out and relatively static, with close-ups here and there; but when Pablo ventures into the fog-shrouded, mystical world of Domenique's family estate, the camera becomes energized, frenetically circling the gaunt, gothic characters and seemingly exploring every nook and cranny of the spooky house.

Sweet Sound is devoid of overt shocks, but is long on atmosphere and tension that slowly builds to a fittingly eerie climax. The scene in which Pablo's auditory premonition of disaster suddenly takes over and washes out the mundane sounds of the city streets is unusual and well done. And of course, the house and its inhabitants are as creepy as anything in haunted house cinema (short of Robert Wise's The Haunting).

In spite of a so-so print and a not-so-meticulously dubbed soundtrack, The Sweet Sound of Death deserves a viewing. It's available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, and shares a Troma DVD release with Paul Naschy's The Hanging Woman (1973).

Pablo sits down to dinner with Domenique's highly eccentric relatives:

No comments:

Post a Comment