Belgian director Harry Kümel scored a hit with his Red Lips (aka Daughters of Darkness, 1971), and for a follow-up was given what was reportedly the highest budget ever afforded a Belgian film up until that time, in order to realise a long-cherished project. That project was an adaptation of a novel credited to Jean Ray, one pseudonym of the legendary fantasy and detective story writer Raymundus Joannes de Kremer, published in 1942. Ray was most famous in his time for his “Harry Dickson” stories, which Alan Resnais had once tried to adapt to the screen, and to which there’s a visual reference in Kümel’s film. The unique flavour of Belgium’s fantasy style, usually exported in comic books and animation, where the visionary and the grubbily homespun rub shoulders, is all-pervasive. The basic premises of Ray’s novel Malpertuis are almost unfairly brilliant, and Kümel set himself a challenging task to turn them into a coherent movie, a task he wasn’t quite up to. Somewhere in
lies a large, voluminous, mystery-shrouded house owned by former sea captain Cassavius (Orson Welles) who is now a beached hulk, and populated by a bizarre menagerie of petit-bourgeois types who are in fact the remnants of the pantheon of Greek Gods. Discovered lying moribund and nearly dead from a lack of belief, they were stitched into human bodies by crazed genius taxidermist Philaris (Charles Janssens), and revived thanks to Cassavius’ alchemistic talents. Ghent
The Gods now live totally controlled by the old savant and forced to play out the lives of ordinary, highly repressed, money-grubbing and domestically toiling people. But now Cassavius is dying, and so he’s conspired to bring the remnants of his family, including his sailor nephew Jan (Mathieu Carriere) and niece Nancy (Susan Hampshire), into the confines of Malpertuis, and to tether them to the property, along with the Gods, with the promise of money and the full inheritance to whoever outlives the others. He seems to hope that eventually one or the other mortal descendent will have a child with a God, in order to create a new age for mankind.
is in love with Mathias Crook (Daniel Pilon), actually Apollo, whilst Jan becomes besotted with Euryale (Hampshire again), the avatar of the Gorgon, goddess of love and death. Kümel commences with some atmospheric scenes in which Jan tries to locate his former family home in Ghent’s shaded, twisting, labyrinthine streets, and begins pursuing a blud-clad female mystery figure he thinks is Nancy, but which proves to instead be Bets (Sylvie Vartan), a chanteuse and courtesan, who labours in a brothel called the Venus Bar. Nancy
Kümel offers a gauche sequence in the colossal bordello-cum-music hall where he gets involved with Bets, and he’s pursued by two of Malpteruis’ denizens, Crook and Dideloo (Michel Bouquet), who have to make sure that Jan will come to the house, and start a fight between Jan and Bets’ pimp to help achieve this end. The badly post-synched, overly-contemporary-sounding song that Bets sings to a room full of randy sailors smells less of era-warping surrealism than of bad pop pastiche and theatre-restaurant bacchanalia. Kümel’s grasp on the movie that follows remains similarly inconsistent. Malpertuis itself, a shadowy, torturously multitudinous space riddled with scampering homunculi, constantly threatens to slip the familiar boundaries of time and space. The Griboins (Fanny Winkler and Robert Lussac) are actually Venus and Eros, now a pair of dumpy old servants, weighed down by flab and labour. Lampernist (Jean-Pierre Cassell) is Prometheus, grovelling pathetically in his home under the stairs, trying to keep all the lights in the house from going out, for when they do his old punishment of being chained down for the birds to eat kicks back into application. Dideloo, who is in fact Hermes, affects the character of a thrifty, smarmy haute-bourgeois, and does “the Gods’ dirty work.” Three repressed spinster ladies, including
(Hampshire again), are the Furies. Alice, really Alecto, who’s been satisfying her imposed corporeal urges with Dideloo, sets about seducing Jan as a better substitute, earning the wrath of her sisters, for whom the implied blasphemy is too much. Alice
Welles, as Cassavius, is required to remain in a bed and mumble for the duration of his contribution to the film. Kümel interestingly seems to offer, in the early scenes, a more than accidental nod to Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968) in the similar way he introduces the beautiful blonde sailor lad as ensnared victim of Welles’ shut-in tyrant. Kümel’s storyline is considerably rearranged from Ray’s multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative. The singular cunning of Ray’s ideas does, however, shine through. The contrast between the flaccid lifestyle of the post-Victorian European bourgeoisie, with pathetic ambitions (Dideloo looks forward to retiring with his dirty postcard collection) and calcified emotions, and the iconic, universe-shaking brilliance of the unreconstructed pagan Gods and the human traits they stood in for, ought to be the gateway of a furious, deeply ironic, and questioning fantasia. Is the modern world an improvement on or a humiliation of the basic human character? One great trouble here is that Kümel insists on a frustrating shape for his narrative, delaying the revelation of the true identities of the Gods and making it the key riddle and end-point of his tale as the mystery that Jan has to solve. Kümel therefore can only explore the disparities tangentially, in intriguing but disconnected snatches, offering hints of the overall game but never quite putting them front and centre where they belong. Instead, the narrative is driven by the faintly Oedipally-tinged efforts of Jan, cast in the familiar role of the pure seeker after knowledge who courts both sex and death in the form of a woman, moving from his sister to Alice/Alecto and then on to the Gorgon in a progression of female archetypes. The multiple casting of Hampshire does more than the clarity of scripting to elucidate the essential idea here.
Otherwise the denizens could be just about any collection of malevolent, barely-contained supernatural beings, and Cassavius’s motivations and methods, as well the theological terror inherent in his actions, remain frustratingly opaque, treated as another aspect of the fantastical absurdity. Instead, Kümel is left playing the story out with some half-hearted and familiar gambits: the oddball collective stranded in the house with a murderer amongst them preventing members from leaving; the essentially familiar sexual triangle of innocent Jan, lusty Alice, and untouchable Euryale, which even Hampshire’s cheeky casting doesn’t quite enliven (although she’s quite good, offering several distinctive characterisations); the hurried and clichéd modern-day climax where everything seems to have proven a mere fever-dream, and then twists back again into closed-circuit nightmare. The opening and close, with quotes from Lewis Carroll, extend the “life is all a dream” jive, when the subject matter’s potential made me pine for something less shy of spectacle and consequence. The film’s mood and structure is similar to Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972), which is superior in just about every regard except budget. Bava’s sense of how to conjure an air of fetid emotions, spiritual rot, and corporeal obscenity in a place where time and experience fold in upon themselves, stands in contrast to Kümel’s overly self-conscious, high-class stab at an occasionally disorientating, occasionally erotic threat.
Gerry Fisher’s terrifically lucid, beautiful photography is a double-edged sword, for the imagery seems too hard-edged, too literal, to ever feel genuinely surreal, and this compounds Kümel’s directorial limitations. Even the climactic moment of Prometheus’s dismemberment doesn’t quite crystallise the underlying savagery in the pagan pantheon. And yet it’s still a film offering much visual pleasure. Malpertuis becomes truly, remarkably flamboyant at occasional junctures, as when Lampernist desperately rushes up and down the house’s corridors, trying to keep the lanterns of sanity alight in a darkening world, or when Euryale answers Cassavius’s plead to give him a swift end by looking directly at him, the brisk edits lending force to the singularity of the Gorgon’s eyes as the nexus point of birth and annihilation, sex and death. The film’s best scene comes when Alice/Alecto, upbraided by her sisters, becomes hysterical in insisting she wants to be human, and unleashes the inner characters of her fellows, who then revolt. Vulcan incinerates the priest who watches over the house, whose brandished crucifix stirs only contemptuous laughter. Here the film finally comes close to tapping into the latent threat and delirium in the story. Amongst the performers, Bouquet delivers the best work, grasping the mix of all too earthly pettiness and underlying strangeness in his Dideloo. The film does seem to have had made waves, however, for the environs of Malpertuis the house, especially the locked blue room where Jan and Alice copulate, seem to have influenced the school in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the overall situation where bourgeois self-exile and cosmic desolation collide within a building unmistakeably anticipates Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen. But in spite of its strong moments, Malpertuis nonetheless deserves its initial reputation as a tantalising, diverting misfire.