Had I seen the 1971 film Malpertuis before I recently bought it on DVD? I don’t know. Maybe I saw it on late night TV, twenty-five or thirty years ago, in some butchered version, perhaps under its alternative, graceless title The Legend of Doom House. I’m sure I once saw the trailer at least, or is it rather that I saw the trailer for a film called Necromancy, which was made around the same time, also with Orson Welles? Maybe I’m just remembering long-ago dreams, built from images of Welles and trips to Belgium and fears of old dark houses. Maybe it’s from someone else’s parallel dreams that the film emerged in the first place.
I know I had seen director Harry Kumel’s most famous film, Daughters ofDarkness, which I remember for its impressive sickly grandeur. I didn’t know much about Kumel, but I imagined him a mysterious, rather grand figure, constrained by some misfortune – perhaps even supernatural in origin – to spend his career in the shadows (having now seen him interviewed on one of the DVD extras, I can confirm that this impression was a little off). His films of the last 35 years are almost entirely unknown, and there’s been virtually nothing anyway since 1991. The films we do know seem to be resisting the temptation to collapse in on themselves. It’s tempting to see the confusion of titles as an expression of chronic evasiveness, as if they were vampires fleeing from the dawn. Daughters of Darkness, according to the IMDB, has also been known at times as Children ofThe Night, Erzebeth, Blood on the Lips, The Promise ofRed Lips, The Redness of the Lips, and The Red Lips!
Malpertuis, set in some unspecified bygone time, tells of Jan, a sailor who's knocked out in a brawl while on shore leave, and wakes up back in the vast, creepy house (Malpertuis) of his domineering uncle Cassavius, played by Welles. Cassavius is dying, and his will dictates that his relatives and hangers-on’s entitlement to their share of his fortune depends on their never leaving Malpertuis, with the last survivor among them inheriting everything. The group duly follows suit, becoming increasingly eccentric and weird, while Jan creeps around the house’s many dark corners in search of its secrets.
The film’s first half is relatively conventional, and during the middle section I was getting a little bored at times (although there’s always enough incident, some of it distinctly hokey, to keep you going), anticipating a potentially underwhelming whodunit kind of outcome. This categorically does not happen. The film suddenly lunges in an astonishing new direction, completely reinventing our understanding of the people we’re watching, then briefly suggesting it might have been a dream before plunging us back in, providing a crazily brilliant explanation for it all, and then ending on a final chapter set in the then-present day (or maybe that’s a dream too, in the mind of a character located elsewhere again). The revelation is highly mythic – it’s the kind of concept that we associate now with the films of M. Night Shyamalan (although I'm not comparing him with Kumel in any other way). It’s nuts of course, and it doesn’t do much to explain many of the specific incidents that went before it, but it’s undeniably grand.
More than the wretched Shyamalan, I found myself thinking of David Lynch, and Inland Empire in particular. Kumel’s film ends on a quote from Lewis Carroll -“Life, what is it but a dream” - and at that point it’s clear that any ending will be merely provisional, that Jan’s real fate may be an endless series of awakenings, demises and reinventions – something that marks him as a precursor to Laura Dern’s character in Lynch’s film. Whereas Inland Empire has Lynch’s customary brooding ominous quality, Kumel’s visuals are sharp and bright. Mathieu Carriere, the actor playing Jan, has a sculptured quality, and always seems objectified – whereas Dern had a surfeit of contradictory, ever-renewable motivation, he’s always a mystery. We don’t know if his actions are at all self-directed, or whether he’s merely carrying out a role in some impossibly complex pre-ordained drama. Ultimately it’s not clear whether he’s even human. Meanwhile, Susan Hampshire plays four parts in the film – a strategy which can be analyzed in fairly obvious terms, but which plainly adds to the sense of artifice.
This isn’t to say that the film feels particularly modern. Michael Atkinson on the IFC blog refers to it as an “expression of a kind of 1960s-70s lawless filmmaking — well-funded and targeting a large counter-culture audience, but still often outrageously ridiculous.” It’s from that age of Euro productions where you regularly had actors dubbed into foreign languages – so in this case Orson Welles speaks Flemish. The deprivation of his famous voice would seem like a handicap, but he still dominates the movie despite minimal screen time (all of it spent in bed). Called on so often to add gravitas to a film in a minor role, and often far more imposing than anyone or anything around him, Welles the actor compiled a weird filmography (again of a wacky international diversity that would hardly be possible now) that sometimes despite itself takes on the illusion of coherence.
For example, around the same time as Malpertuis, he was in Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder, as another scheming patriarch, intent on living his life as though the clock had stopped in 1925, certain of his own omnipotence. The film is quite an eye-opener for those who only know the clinical, precise Chabrol – a pre-cursor to the meta-narratives that now proliferate, but smarter and more fluid than any of them. It draws superbly on Welles’ bottomless resonances, and on those of Anthony Perkins, in quasi-Psycho mode from the outset.
None of this makes Malpertuis the movie that you most urgently need to see tonight, but there’s a power and a conviction to it that are missing from many objectively greater films. It has an almost endearing kind of earnestness, a belief that its deconstruction of life as a dream might actually be revelatory. The freshness of the opening sequences, in which Cassavius’ henchmen trail Jan through the streets after he disembarks, leaves no doubt that this all derives from a real world where you can breathe the air, and then there’s that catapult at the end into the immediacy of the modern world. Rather like how you bracket the experience of seeing a movie of course. Nothing so original about that parallel either, but if you immerse yourself into it each time as though it were new, then it might just always feel like a revelation.