AKA The Legend of Doom House; Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House
“For sure, one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, a cult film above and beyond anything else; a film for those initiated into midnight screenings. Where else do such dreams take place?”—Ernest Mathjis, DVD liner notes for the Barrel Entertainment edition of Malpertuis
DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel
PLOT: When his ship sets anchor in a Flemish town, Jan, a sailor, goes looking for his childhood home, only to find that it burned down years ago. Seeing a fleeing woman he believes to be his sister, he chases her into a brothel where he is knocked unconscious in a brawl. He awakens in Malpertuis, a massive estate ruled by his Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles) from his sickbed. Cassavius reads his will to his very strange extended family, and its provisions set them at deadly odds with one another.
- Malpertuis was an adpation of the only novel written by the Belgian fantasist Jean Ray, who was famous for his macabre short stories (and is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft). The novel was complex, composed of four separate narratives told by four characters, and therefore presented a challenge to adapt.
- Kümel’s previous film was the dreamlike, erotic vampire tale Daughters of Darkness [Les lèvres rouges] (1971). Hired to make a sexy commercial horror movie, Kümel delivered a memorably bizarre film that pleased exploitation audiences looking for blood and breasts, but was also a crossover hit in the arthouse circuit. The success of Daughters convinced United Artists to back the Malpertuis project, which was the film Kümel personally wanted to make. UA’s financial backing enabled Kümel to hire Orson Welles for the key role of Cassavius.
- Orson Welles was hired for three days of shooting. An irascible, elderly eccentric by this time in his career, Welles asked for his fee to be delivered in cash in a suitcase. Welles was drunk and rude on the set, interfering with Kümel’s attempts to direct and, in one case, repeatedly ruining one of Michel Bouquet’s takes until the director agreed to give Welles a closeup he had requested. At the end of Welles’ three-day contract, the project was well behind schedule due to the legendary actor’s drunkenness, extended lunch breaks and general peevishness. Apologizing for his behavior, Welles volunteered to work for a fourth day free, and performed all his remaining scenes perfectly in a single morning, putting the production back on schedule.
- Malpertuis was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972, but United Artists did not like Kümel’s two-hour cut and submitted a dubbed, re-edited 100 minute version of the film rather than the director’s preferred version. The film was not popular with the jury, then bombed in both the United States and Europe when UA released its preferred version (misleadingly marketed as a horror pic) as The Legend of Doom House. Not only did the film tank, but Kümel’s promising young career was cut short. Disgusted with studio interference, he began directing in television and teaching, and has directed only a few unremarkable feature films (including some arty softcore pornography) in the last twenty-eight years.
- The director’s cut of the film was unavailable on video for many years, and was not seen until the film was re-released in 2002. This cut was not available on home video until 2005, and not available on Region 1 until 2007.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The weary face of the legendary Orson Welles, grumpy and gray but still regal, as he reclines in tuxedo-like pajamas against scarlet bedsheets. The bed-ridden Welles embodies the decaying secret center of the wickedness of Malpertuis.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before we get to the psychedelic-era Chinese puzzle-box of an ending(s), Malpertuis has created a disorienting sense of oddness. Both the film and the titular estate are labyrinthine mazes filled with enchanting and mysteriously decorated rooms, with little explanation of how these dazzling individual pieces fit together into the grand layout.
Original French trailer for Malpertuis
COMMENTS: “It’s pretty, but it’s a bit difficult to understand… Somehow, it makes me think of all kinds of things, but I’m not sure exactly what.” Harry Kümel selects this epigraph, spoken by Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” to begin the director’s cut of Malpertuis. In the edited version of the film which premiered at Cannes, the producers kicked off the movie with a different quote, this time from Shakespeare: “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Either quote could describe this mysterious tale, but the first implies a delight in nonsense, while the second legend sounds like a jab at Kümel.
Both quotes are reasonable responses to Malpertuis. The film is undeniably pretty, often irresistibly so, thanks to the dramatic camerawork of cinematographer Gerry Fisher and the brilliant set designs of Pierre Cadiou de Conde. Malpertuis is undoubtedly full of sound and fury, from Orson Welles commandingly hammy performance to a liver being torn out onscreen to the multiple false endings, and although it could hardly be said to signify nothing, one could fairly conclude that the resolution didn’t justify the bombast. As far as whether this tale is told to us by an idiot… well, seeing the unmarketable film Kümel delivered after United Artists threw millions of dollars at him in hopes of generating a big hit, the producers might have concluded so. More charitably, this tale seems to be told by a wunderkind director who is so enamored with his own genius and trickery that he forgets to make his story accessible to his audience.
The massive estate of Malpertuis, which is so detailed that it almost becomes a separate character, is a mazelike manse full of long, narrow halls lit by flickering gas torches that lead to various drawing rooms, attics, laboratories, spiral staircases, kitchens, gardens, and cathedrals, each with their own unique color scheme and props, each lovingly detailed. As Jan wanders these disorienting corridors, we get no idea of the layout or grand plan of the multi-building estate of Malpertuis; we never know what may be around the next corner. Malpertuis, the movie, is a lot like Malpertuis, the manor, in that sense. Individual scenes are impeccably constructed, but other than providing a common atmosphere, they don’t seem to fit into a grand plan. Individual scenes stick in the minds eye: Sylvie Varlan’s sexy burlesque in a pop-cartoonish red bordello, Uncle Cassavius insulting each of the vultures gathered around his deathbed in turn as a prelude to divulging the conditions of his last will and testament, a sequence where Jan encounters three streetwalkers of varying degrees of experience, each wearing a mask that contradicts her real age. Each of these pieces is intriguing on its own, but they add up to less than they should.
The players are as baroque and detailed as the rooms of the mansion and the set-pieces. Characters are the key to Malpertuis; each member of this extended family of weirdos has an alter-ego, and if you catch one of them, you might guess the secret of Malpertuis before the director intends. There is the protagonist, blond Jan, a sailor who cannot remember his past, or even remember that he has forgotten it. Jan is assayed by Mathieu Carrière in an adequate performance; an androgynous Adonis, he was chosen for the role mainly for his startlingly pretty looks. Orson Welles tackles the role of Cassavius, as domineering and crusty a patriarch as any family of depraved misfits might deserve. Michel Bouquet, who in his bowler looks more than a little like John Steed gone to seed, makes quite an impact as the sometimes comic, sometimes vicious Uncle Dideroo, who always finds time to go out of his way to push a crippled boy to the ground as he rushes past on an errand. Philaris, Cassavius’ half-mad, half-idiot, gnomelike taxidermist assistant, and Lampernist, a disturbed cousin who talks to rats (they talk back) and constantly frets that Cassivius is about to turn out the lights, round out the main members of the huge male cast. Then there are the women: Nancy, Jan’s sensual sibling who is physically affectionate towards him in a very non-sisterly way, but is also deeply in love with another relative; Euryale, with her fiery red curls and perpetually downcast eyes; and the three black-clad spinster sisters, most prominent among them the young and pretty Alice, who sleeps with Dideroo but yearns for Jan. (Adding another touch of strangeness, Nancy, Euryale, and Alice, as well as another minor role, are all played by Susan Hampshire. To Hampshire’s credit, and the credit of the makeup department, you might not notice this fact without being told).
With these bizarre characters, trapped together inside this rambling Gothic edifice, Kümel has the right ingredients for a fascinating scenario. It takes about an hour to complete the setup, but we are forgiving; the atmosphere is lovely to soak in. Once the characters have been introduced and locked away together inside the mansion, there are two ways the plot can go: Jan can explore Malpertuis and discover the secret to all the strange happenings, or we can watch the already unhinged characters go stark raving mad, eating away at each other. It is at this point that the promising scenario begins falls apart. Kümel pursues both plot paths, but follows neither to the end. Jan keeps discovering clues, but in the end, it turns out the clues he finds don’t matter. Philaris sends him on a wild goose chase to set a mousetrap in the attic; he puzzles over a key to a secret room that never materializes; Alice promises to give him a clue, but when he meets her all he gets is a torrid romp with Susan Hampshire’s body double. If the script hadn’t set up the premise that these hints would lead Jan to deduce Malpertuis’ mystery, we wouldn’t feel so cheated by the constant digressions and failures to follow up loose ends. On the other plot front, we suspect that the characters might go stir-crazy and start bumping each other off; late in the game, this does indeed come to pass, but not in the way we expect, or for good reason.
This part of the film, from the midpoint to just before the climax, promises to build to something, but the script keeps getting distracted by some idea for a pretty scene, and rushes off to explore another baroque notion. It’s as if the movie, having taken its time in the setup, now feels that it has to rush to its conclusion, and sets off in all directions at once. Subplots are cut short; we never learn what those talking mice were all about. The two situations Kümel was working in suddenly resolve themselves by fiat; without Jan figuring out anything on his own, a character simply explains the premise in a few lines of dialogue. It’s a reveal that doesn’t satisfy us because it’s not earned; it also leaves a lot of interesting questions about Cassavius’ motives, identity and techniques (which certainly would have been addressed in the novel) unasked, much less answered. To resolve the plotline exploring the conflict among the heirs, Kümel simply has all of them snap at once.
It gets worse from here, however, as Kümel launches us into an anarchic finale that nests dreams inside of dreams. A single reality shift in a film can be exhilarating, if well done; Malpertuis‘ twist is not particularly satisfying, but Kümel tries to compensate by throwing another one at us (and then another one). It doesn’t feel like we’re being exposed to a great mystery inside a mystery; it feels like we’re being yanked around by a director for his own amusement. It’s maddening for the audience, who have been led to believe they’re watching one kind of story, only to find they’ve been watching no kind of story at all. Kümel has simply been building atmosphere all along; but the atmosphere envelops not a world, but only another atmosphere.
The United Artists cut of the film that Kümel despised dispenses with one entire dream sequence, which is an advantage in itself (although the cut leads to continuity problems with a sudden change of wardrobe and an unexplained head wound). The rest of the edit has advantages and disadvantages over the director’s cut, so that comparing the two cuts is nearly a wash. On the plus side for the UA version, you get to hear Orson Welles speaking in his own voice, rather than dubbed into Flemish; on the negative side, the rest of the English-dubbed performances leave something to be desired. Whereas Kümel’s cut was possibly a bit too leisurely in the setup, the UA edit is too rushed, and leaves out some non-essential minor scenes which nevertheless add much to the initial atmosphere of foreboding. The two versions use Georges Delerue’s terrific original score differently, as well. I prefer Kümel’s more subtle orchestration, where tense scenes are accompanied only by a timpani; in the UA cut, the orchestration is far lusher, bordering on the ridiculously over-romantic at times. All in all, the two versions each have their strengths and weaknesses; Kümel’s cut is to be preferred, but it’s not the great leap forward fans of the “butchered” original may have hoped to see, and the longer cut is actually more confusing at the climax.
If you set foot on the grounds of Malpertuis, expect to see wonders. Wander around at your leisure, soaking in the sights. But if, while you’re touring the estate, a script comes up to you hinting it holds a map that will help you get your bearings among the twisted corridors, just smile and continue on your way. You’ll only feel cheated if you buy into the plot, and someone will come by to explain everything and whisk you away to the exit soon enough.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an exquisitely bonkers folly of the highest order – seemingly intended to be a kind of Bunuelian version of Gormenghast, but too often ending up more like a over-egged cod-surrealist panto.”—Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (festival viewing)
IMDB LINK: Malpertuis (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Weird Review: Malpertuis: The Novel & Film; or, We’ll Always Have Olympus: In this comparison of the novel and film, Adam Walter, who admires the book, finds the movie to be a worthy adaptation up until the muddled conclusion.
DVD INFO: The 2007 2 disc Barrel Entertainment release (buy) is the best version the movie’s fans could hope for; if anything, it’s overly reverent. It contains both the 119 minute directors cut and the 100 minute “Cannes version.” Commentary by Kümel and the first assistant director, a 90 minute interview with the director (discussing his entire career, but focusing almost exclusively on Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis), and featurettes on Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire, and Jean Ray comprise the extras. The package also comes with a booklet with two scholarly essays on the movie. (In an example of just how confusing the movie can get, professor and Kümel scholar Ernest Mathijs makes an error when synopsizing the plot in his essay, implying that Jan was lured into the bordello by Alice, when in fact it was Nancy he was chasing).