Early in Mad Love (d. Karl Freund), an audience is seen watching Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) performing in a Grand Guignol play, in which she appears as "The Torturee". This crowd is there to hoot at the wild, over-the-top grotesqueries of what happens on stage, but one woman finds it all too horrible, and buries her face in her husband's shoulder.
Because the play is not being taken seriously by anybody else, nor was it intended to be, the woman's emotions are found to be amusing by her husband and by the people around her..
Later, Freund will imply that Yvonne Orlac's "Torturee" has been burned by a hot poker somewhere below frame, as it were, and Peter Lorre's obsessive Dr. Gogol, in his usual box seat at the theater, reacts in a way that implies he wishes he were that hot poker. So who's reaction makes more sense: the woman, or her husband? Mad Love will continue on to reach heights of high Gothic absurdity -- which I mean as a compliment -- that might elicit from its viewers the kind of hoots that most of the Paris crowd was directing at Yvonne Orlac's play, and those hoots will have been anticipated by the filmmakers. It will also present, in Lorre's Gogol, one of the truly unique and most unnerving characters in horror films.
All of which makes the choice to drop that shot of the woman cowering against her husband an interesting one. I've mentioned before my interest in horror movies and literature that explore the genre itself as the source of our unease. I can't quite twist Mad Love into enough knots to make it that kind of film, but the woman's disturbance, and the way it differs from the rest of the audience, isn't there for no reason.
As a genre, horror, at least on film, has devolved into something that we're not supposed to take seriously, and to shrink from it (never mind actually objecting to it) is met with anything from mild to severe derision. Or gentle patronizing, which is what the woman's husband offers her. None of it's real, he reasons, and besides that it's all too absurd. He thinks this while overhead a small bald man with protruding eyes who has never experienced love is having his warped headspace filled with the theatrical images below, images that will keep him going until they're taken away. At which point he'll begin to bust loose.
Taking things seriously, no matter how absurd they are, is not always such a bad thing. While I may not share all the same cultural tastes as her, it seems to me that the woman in the audience has a pretty healthy aversion to simulated torture (when you get right down to it, what is there to enjoy in such a spectacle?). Perhaps she's experienced enough real-life horror, or at least ordinary human unhappiness, to not want to seek it out in fiction. Perhaps her reasons are her own. Or perhaps it's the lack of horror in the rest of the crowd, less than what's on stage, that really makes her cringe.
Pull yourself far enough back, laugh in death's face too long, and you might find yourself like Rollo (Edward Brophy). Guilty, remorseless, and facing the guillotine, all he can muster by way of emotion is an admiration of the blade that will soon remove his head from his body. Push yourself far enough back from feeling anything -- because it's not real -- and that remove can extend beyond the theater, and fiction. Soon you might find it useful to apply this distance to strangers. Then to acquaintances. It becomes easier to act only for yourself. Then it becomes easier to intentionally act against others. And the distance broadens to take in friends, family. Finally yourself. Nothing matters. It's all so absurd anyway. Your body's not even your own. Soon it's as if your hands were acting of their own accord.