Malpertuis, starring Orson Welles, has been a mysterious, elusive legend among devotees of the fantastic cinema. Now we not only have it on disc at last, but we have it twice.
Directed by Harry Kumel, following his great Daughters of Darkness, it’s another delicate fantasy about characters half in love with easeful death, though its tone and style are quite different from the earlier film. Where Daughters is languid and classical, Malpertuis is ragged and dizzy, full of sharp zooms and frantic cuts. It’s based on a novel by the Belgian novelist Jean Ray, but the film also captures the dreamlike circularity of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais and the shaggy, translucent clarity of Isak Dinesen’s fables.
Kumel’s film is a house, an estate really, a great claustrophobic web-like heart with expressionist stairwells and rooms accreted upon rooms as though spit or spun out from one or the other end of its resident monster, Cassavius (played by a monster, Orson Welles). Rotting in his bed, the old man has only a few scenes in which he spews venom on the grotesque relatives and hangers-on waiting for his inheritance. He tells them they must remain forever at Mapertuis until two are left alive.
But first, there’s a whole reel of set-up that’s already rich in cross-references. The central character is Jan, a young sailor played with impassive baby-doll beauty by Mathieu Carriere. One shot carefully places him in conjunction with a naked marble statue, a nod that has a literal as well as symbolic dimension. Like a blond, doe-eyed cross of Jean Marais and Jean Seberg in a tight sailor suit, he runs through his paces, a puppet of fate and the screenplay. He is Terence Stamp in Billy Budd and Teorema and John Phillip Law in Barbarella, and we can’t help but perceive his future lineage in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle, Raul Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.
Depending on which version you watch, he enters the film in two ways. His ship is observed by his uncle Dideloo (Michel Bouquet), who declares that he must be on board because Cassavius says so. In what’s called the director’s cut, a 119-minute version dubbed into Dutch, Jan, at this point, walks on deck and has a conversation with his mates. In the shorter English version that showed at Cannes, and which preserves the voices of Welles and Susan Hampshire, Jan materializes out of thin air at the word “destiny”, conjured into being by the exigencies of storytelling. At the significantly named Venus Bar, Jan catches the eye of Bets (Sylvie Vartan), who sings in a curly Orphan Annie wig just like Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. (In Daughters of Darkness, Delphine Seyrig had also been the object of Kumel’s Dietrich fixation.) Dideloo orchestrates a fracas in which Jan receives a bloody conk on the noggin, waking in Malpertuis and the rest of the plot. But already the viewer doesn’t know if Jan is really awake or dreaming, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that there’s no definitive answer.
The thriller plot that ensues from here has to do with the secret of Malpertuis, which can be at least partially guessed by viewers who pick up on all the overt references to Greek mythology. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Susan Hampshire plays three roles (actually four—no, five!), made up so differently for each that it’s difficult to recognize her. Gerry Fisher’s photography, Georges Delerue’s score, and the design of Pierre Cadiou de Conde also catch the eye and ear.
The two versions on this double disc are equally essential and each is a distinct experience. The Dutch cut, longer and busier in edits and freeze-frames and post-dubbed chatter, opens and closes with quotations from Lewis Carroll, and its final reel contains a whole waking-dream-within-dream sequence that’s cut from the shorter version (leaving no explanation of how Jan suddenly changes clothes from one shot to another, but that’s the kind of thing that happens in dreams, too).
Rapid actions seem a bit slow on the English version, perhaps because the extras required a lower bit-rate on the feature. There’s commentary by Kumel on the longer cut, a 74-minute interview with David Del Valle, a short feature on working with Welles (with many precious unused takes), an interview with Hampshire, and an old TV interview with Ray.
Del Valle’s interview yields enough nuggets about this film and Daughters of Darkness to make us wish for more. Asked whom he likes among today’s American directors, he rhapsodizes over Ang Lee, Roland Emmerich (!) “and of course Spielberg”. Kumel speaks in English with subtitles to clarify his accent, but the subtitler didn’t always get what he was saying; thus, “Melies” becomes “milieus” and “desuetude” becomes “deshabitude”.
The most crucial inclusions, of course, are those on Welles, who is recalled as being a bear to work with by his director. Kumel says Welles held them up for his scheduled three days, insisted on close-ups, didn’t recall lines, ruined other actors’ moments, and generally was drunk and unmannerly. Then he apologized and gave them a free fourth day, on which he nailed an entire day’s work in two hours and left for the airport. One gets the sense that Welles’ behavior perfectly reflected the role in which he was cast; he manifested the despised, despotic presence the other actors were supposed to loathe. It’s not clear whether Kumel appreciates that point or not.
Nor is it clear that he recognizes the irony of declaring that it’s a privilege to work with artists like Seyrig and Fisher, who are one’s equals if not superiors, and that one doesn’t get in the way of people like this, while he was clearly resistant to Welles’ demands and expected him to follow instructions. When Del Valle suggests that Welles tested people, Kumel says “No, no, he was capricious”, yet the point of his story is that Welles could have behaved just as perfectly on the first day as the fourth. If he didn’t, could there be no reason beyond caprice?
Carriere says tellingly that Welles was like a large wild animal, and you don’t tell it where to stand—you just make a documentary and follow it with the camera. Kumel, as a (young) director, clearly felt he should be in charge of Welles, while his ego perhaps didn’t feel as threatened by Seyrig or Fisher. Carriere also sums up the film excellently in the liner notes: “extremely ambitious, risky, and a bit camp too. It is also schlock, baroque and grotesque—in short, it has the right bad taste”.