REVIEW: The Madame in Black
– By Allan Lear
Translation is a tricksy art. Of course, as a living, breathing Englishman, I have almost no experience of translation. I did it a bit, way back in my school days when I was learning all the French that I have now forgotten and all the Latin that I never really knew in the first place. I am, under the weight of any serious examination, a complete monoglot.
There are cultural and historical reasons why people of English-speaking nations have no tendency to learn second languages, but there’s also a genuine linguistic one, inasmuch as other languages are stupid. English is very unusual in the European languages in that it does not, in the main, gender concrete or abstract nouns. With very few exceptions such as, for some reason, boats, if a thing doesn’t have actual genitals attached then we very sensibly call it ‘it’. In French, inanimate objects are assigned masculine or feminine articles in a seemingly random and arbitrary fashion. A pen made by the Bic company is ‘un bic’ (male) but a windsurfing board made by the same company is ‘une Bic’ (female). Look me in the eyes, frog-eating onion-sellers, and tell me that makes any kind of sense.
The silly thing, of course, is that the English spoke French for hundreds of years. Not all of them, but the upper echelons of society spoke Norman French for centuries following the invasion of the aptly-named William the Bastard. Anglo-Saxon, the root language from which much of our grammar supposedly originates, is also a gendered language, as is modern German, its descendant. Why did English come to ditch gendered nouns? Why did we also throw out the old ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, equivalent to the French low-status ‘tu’ for ‘you’, and start just calling everyone ‘you’ regardless of how well-bred or important they are? Who knows. Personally I think it’s the very English combination of common sense and bone-arse laziness.
Grammar is the trickier end of the linguistic facility, but even something as relatively simple as vocabulary can trip the unwary up. I’m not talking about words with no direct equivalent, like the Italian ‘culaccino’ (the irritating damp ring that a cold glass leaves on a table) or the magnificent German ‘kummerspeck’ (weight put on thanks to overeating your way through a depression; literally, and brilliantly, “grief bacon”). Back when I was doing my poxy GCSE learning, my French teacher (Mr Leonard Byrne, something of a polymath as well as a polyglot; he played violin in the orchestra for the Liverpool Empire) warned us about what he called “false friends” – words that look like English vocab but are not. A friend of mine referred to the weather in his German oral exam by stating, “Ich bin warm” – unaware that this is not a statement of temperature but a declaration of one’s homosexuality. Whether his final mark went up or down as a consequence remains a matter of speculation to this day.
The Madame in Black suffers, titularly, from this false friend syndrome. It’s a Swedish film going by the original title of Svarta Madam, which one can tell at a glance means something to the effect of “black woman”. Clearly the Swedish translator is aware that this is no longer the 1970s and you can’t just call a film Black Woman in English because, apart from anything else, it would be a humungous misrepresentation of what the film contains.
Unfortunately, however, what the translator has not realised is that ‘Madame’ is not a noun in the English language. I suspect it’s intended to give the sense of an elderly lady, but unfortunately it does not. I can’t speak for anybody else, but my first assumption on seeing that there was a horror film called “The Madame in Black” was that it was a solecism for “Madam”, and that the film was about a leather-clad dominatrix type who, steel fist in velvet glove, administered a brothel on behalf of its mafioso ownership.
This is regrettably not the case.
Instead, it transpires that The Madame in Black is yet another bloody film about a bunch of cretins who stand in front of a mirror repeating a key phrase until a multiple homicide turns up and shows them the error of their ways. This film differs only in that it has the sheer gall to advertise this process as being some sort of game. “Let’s play ‘The Madame in Black’”, squawk the obtuse flibbertigibbets of the principle cast as they sit around getting mildly trellised on cheap white wine and losing what minor critical faculties they may possess.
Now, perhaps the Swedish might have some bizarre cultural associations as to what constitutes a game, but they compete in the Olympics so at some point the international community must have made the effort to set them right. A game is a ritualised form of competition. One or more players contest either against each other or the set-up of the game itself in order to achieve a specific objective, culminating in either success and reward or failure and feelings of inadequacy, the gloating of one’s competitors, and schoolyard bullying. Standing in front of an Ikea looking-glass burbling inane phrases in the hope of summoning a mythic sod to eviscerate oneself and one’s loved ones with a Candyman hook is not a game in any widely-understood sense of the term; merely an exercise in narcissism-based euthanasia.
Regardless, the vacant dullards of Malmö persist in this ludicrous charade. Being a short, The Madame in Black does not extend to a visceral exhibition of their traumatic and well-deserved demises; it restricts itself to a sting ending, where an utterly predictable encounter with the eponymous beldam is presented to us as though we should be somehow surprised, or even interested.
I for one am utterly fatigued beyond caffeine of this moronic setup being churned out again and again and again with no variation. It doesn’t matter that The Madam in Black is a marginally superior effort, being well-acted and with reasonable production values, because I’ve seen this story a quadrillion times and it was stupid the first time.
All wannabe horror film auteurs should get this through their heads right now: mirrors have two uses. You can smash them up and use them as daggers, or you can snort cocaine off them. Maybe, if you’re really stuck, you can use them to harvest the souls of your enemies and create a mirror-powered gateway to the fourth circle of hell. But any more bloody films about a bunch of twits chanting a haka into at their own gormless reflections will henceforth be returned unopened. Been there, seen that, bored bloody sick of it.