Malpertuis was Belgian director Harry Kümel’s follow-up to his gothic horror masterpiece Daughters of Darkness. It’s more in the tradition of the cinema fantastique rather than a pure horror film, but it certainly has elements of horror. It’s an exploration of dream, and myth, and the power of belief.
Jan, a young sailor, follows a woman, believing her to be a woman he is searching for. He finds himself in the red light district, gets into a fight with a pimp, and receives a savage blow on the head. When he awakes he is in Malpertuis, a mysterious rambling house belonging to a old man named Cassavius (played by Orson Welles). Cassavius is dying, and a strange assortment of eccentric relatives and hangers-on have gathered for the reading of the will. What they get is the answer to their dreams, and a living nightmare as well. To say anything further about the plot would reveal far too much.
Malpertuis is a triumph of visual style, with cinematographer Gerry Fisher doing marvels with colour. That’s not to say that the movie lacks substance. Based on a novel by Belgian writer Jean Ray, it’s a strange, enigmatic and fascinating film. Welles is terrific as Cassavius, but it’s strictly a supporting role. The real star is Susan Hampshire. She doesn’t just give the best performance of her career, she gives the three best performances of her career, in three different roles. In fact she plays a total of five roles, three of them being crucial ones. And she’s magnificent.
The DVD release from Barrel Entertainment contains two different versions of the film. There’s the version originally shown at Cannes in 1971, in English, and there’s a longer version in Dutch completely recut by director Harry Kümel. Both versions are worth watching, with the English version making the performances of Orson Welles and especially Susan Hampshire even more impressive since we hear their own voices. There are generous extras, including a commentary track by Harry Kümel, an interview with Susan Hampshire and a documentary. I recommend this one very very highly.