Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, July 20, 2007


       Fantasy film, as a genre, seems to suffer from a case of arrested development; fans of the form tend to gravitate towards either epic tales of derring-do (like Star Wars and L.o.T.R. -- although I like both of those...) or adolescent coming-of-age stories (such as Spirited Away or even The Iron Giant -- both of which are just great!); and other such tales of childhood wish fulfillment. Only rarely are filmed fantasies used as a medium to explore darker, more adult themes -- albeit with broader strokes than a more straightforward drama would. But what fantasy lacks in subtlety, it sometimes gains in raw imaginative impulse and creative efficacy -- such, I would suggest, is the case with Harry Kümel’s surreal Gothic melodrama, Malpertuis.

       The story, set in the late Nineteenth century, begins with the return of a young sailer, Jan, to his ancestral home in the Netherlands. There he intends to visit his friends, his relatives, and most importantly, his aged and soon-to-expire Uncle, Cassavius (played -- entirely from a sick-bed -- by Orson Welles). Once there, Jan is confronted by the secretive, even enigmatic members of the Malpertuis household; his sister Nancy, his Aunt Alice, and the seductive but taciturn Euryale (all played by actress Susan Hampshire) -- and many others -- certainly not the least of which being Cassavius himself, who spends his final days busily composing his will, and who yet holds the key to the many, many mysteries of the family estate...        -- and that’s all you’ll get out of me; because any more would be telling...

       Based upon the 1943 novel by prolific writer of weird and fantastic fiction, Jean Ray; a kind of Belgian H.P. Lovecraft, I gather -- and that’s all I can do, as the book is O.O.P. here in the U.S. -- Malpertuis sometimes verges on transforming into some more familiar genre, like Horror, or even Gothic Romance; but never quite makes the leap. It remains, more or less from beginning to end, a surreal cinematic exercise, played out against the background of the seemingly endless corridors and crumbling arches of Malpertuis Mansion itself. The film premiered at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival to no little scorn from the critics, who, truth be told, had undoubtedly confronted even more bizarrely oneiric films in their day -- Last Year at Marienbad would definitely qualify on that front, for sure -- but few films, I imagine, that strove to confound them with such, uhh...        Baroque Grotesqueness, let’s say.
       The movie Malpertuis most closely reminds me of is Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which was based upon a novel by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Traumnovelle -- translation: Dream Story -- and Malpertuis does indeed seem very much like a filmed dream. Kümel is not the craftsman that Kubrick was, but somehow Malpertuis makes the stronger impression (upon me, at least). The film's unusual sensibility lead it to have some success as a cult movie in Europe, especially Germany; a country which seems to like its' fantasies dark and foreboding -- or so history would suggest. I should mention, if you’re looking for a fright-fest, Malpertuis will fail to satisfy. There are no startled cats leaping out of cupboards, no masked killers stalking ingenues here -- Only one seemingly logical scene following another, all somehow adding up to something quite irrational, even baffling. That, if anything, Malpertuis provides: plenty of creepy, unsettling atmosphere, -- but few "scares".

       Malpertuis finally swings open its doors here in the States this Tuesday, July 24th, when it becomes available on DVD. You can rent or buy it from the usual sources, but I’m not sure, once having seen it, you ever get to leave it entirely behind.

Some links:

Harry Kümel on the IMDb.

Barrel Entertainment’s (the U.S. distributer of the DVD) webpage regarding the release.

Next post -- 07/27/07

1 comment:

Davey said...

we will serve no rat before it's time