Midnight Movie Madness

“Malpertuis” – alternate title ”the legend of Doom house” green nose and blue eye shadow (director’s cut 125 minutes, France-Belgium-Germany 1971)

“And those eyes! I’ve got a whole tin of eyes, but none like yours!”

Based on a book by Jean Ray of the same title, adapted for the screen by Jean Ferry, directed by Harry Kumel. This movie is available on a two disc DVD set: disc 1 is the director’s cut with a Flemish soundtrack and English subtitle.
Disc 2, referred to as the Cannes version because it appeared at the Cannes festival, is dubbed in English.
So, if you have trouble watching a movie with subtitles, be aware… The English version has been heavily cut and is missing some significant material.
Speaking of material, there is a lot of it, and I don’t just mean in the film. Both DVDs have extras well worth watching and the book itself, written by Jean Ray in 1943, answers some questions necessarily left out by the adaptation.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the early part of last century, in the house of Malpertuis lives a strange assemblage of people, some of whom are related, on the surface constituting a dysfunctional family headed by the dying and evil Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles). Cassavius’ young nephew Jan (German actor Matthieu Carriere) returns from years at sea, and is tricked into seeking his sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire) who has gone to live at Malpertuis after some family misfortunes.
Cassavius’ testament dictates that Malpertuis’ inhabitants will inherit his considerable fortune, on condition that they never leave the domain, until their death.
Seduced by his cousin Euryale (also played by Susan Hampshire), Jan changes his mind and decides to stay, slowly unraveling the house’s mysteries.
Most of the people living at Malpertuis are forgotten gods of ancient Greece captured long ago by Cassavius, a master of the occult.
It is somewhat difficult describing a movie which unfolds like a dream, and that’s exactly how “Malpertuis” develops. It helps knowing that the source material, Jean Ray’s book, has in tone and style been compared to H.P. Lovecraft among others. And for those who enjoy Lovecraft’s stories, “Malpertuis” can be a thrilling experience.

Technically, shooting this turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. First of all, the cast includes Dutch, Belgian, British, German, French, Canadian and one American (Welles) actors. There were scheduling issues due to availability, scenes shot in two languages between actors who did not understand the other’s language, and then the major headaches caused by Orson Welles.
These difficulties are discussed at length in the discs’ interviews and commentaries by Kumel, director of photography Gerry Fisher and some of the actors.

It’s worth noting here, not simply because Kumel himself expounds on them at considerable length, but because in a real sense, Welles’ behavior as described, egotistical demands and tantrums, sabotaging the other actors’ performance, meddling with the shooting schedule, mirrored the way the “Malpertuis” characters interplayed.
The drunken hubris, pettiness, the wondrous but by then waning reputation of Welles, turning the performers’ awe and respect for him into resentment and into something likely close to hatred. He was their god, once.

Kumel credits his DP (director of photography) Gerry Fisher with much of the atmosphere and artistry of the film, and more. Fisher, in preparation for the shoot, visited as many museums as possible, even after shooting began, to immerse himself in paintings of the Flemish and Dutch masters.
This shows throughout, but Fisher also worked around issues presented by Orson Welles’ demands. As I remarked in a review of “Daughters of Darkness”, Kumel uses color as symbols and character/mood definitions.
Welles insisted on using his own clothes and doing his own make-up, due to his theater background.
Two issues came of this: in the scenes set in Cassavius’ bedroom, Kumel decided on three colors to dominate: black, red and white. In the commentary, he attributes to these an oppressive quality, apparent in “fascist”, specifically Nazi, flags. In contrast, Jean Ray in his book refers to red, black and white as characterizing the various types of magic. Red represented also sin and passion, blue represented virtue and white, purity. We’re made to understand Jan is a virgin, hence the blue eye shadow worn by Carriere. Well, at the beginning anyway.

Problem was, Welles arrived wearing a green house robe over his white shirt, and as was his habit, a fake nose made of green colored theater putty. Fisher devised a lighting combination which made the robe look black and gave the nose a leaden complexion, very much as described in the book. Terrific creative work, also seen in the individual lighting he gave each character, even as they appeared together or in groups, truly remarkable work, as was his mastery of shadows and their projection.
Welles was not the only obstacle Kumel had to overcome. The actor playing Abbe Doucedame disappeared for a few weeks, screwing up the schedule.

Kumel gives credit where it’s due, and not just to Gerry fisher who is owed a lot. His cast performed admirably. By today’s standards, the character of Jan may well be annoying to the point of exasperation. In the book, he is a product of the bourgeoisie, spoiled and subject to mood swings and tantrums, drawn between two strong female characters, who are goddesses after all. Strange then that screenwriter Ferry decided to make him a sailor returning after years on the oceans, essentially combining Jan’s character with that of his father.
Another issue is that of the scene in the tavern of the red district where Jan follows Bets (Sylvie Vartan). It does not work, the song supposed to be an homage to Dietrich in “Blue Angel” sounds like bad late ‘60s pop, which it is. Vartan was a popular French pop singer.

This brings me to the other jarring scene, toward the end of the movie, when Jan turns out to be a modern day computer engineer who is released from a mental hospital, after being “cured” from his hallucinations about ancient gods captive in Malpertuis.
That scene, which Kumel says critics hated but made sense to him, suddenly pinpoints the action in time to the early ‘70s, with the wide ties, bell bottoms, sideburns, cars of the era, even shots of Biafra which was much in the news at the time.
This is way too specific, too mundane after we were lured into the unspecified era of the tale. Like the helicopter appearing at the end of “Donkey skin”, it feels like a bucket of cold water.
There are many nice twists and touches throughout, visual and otherwise, which make “Malpertuis” a must see. One of my favorites has to do with the quote at the top of this review, spoken by Philarete to Jan, taken from the marionette maker of “the tales of Hoffman”.

Because of this, as well as the originality of the themes, explored later by Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman, about the nature of divinity and destiny, “Malpertuis” gets four jellybeans.

4 beans


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