Malpertuis is an appealingly offbeat reflection on the outmodedness of myth in the modern day. Harry Kumel conducts it with a sublime merging of understated humour, story, colour and set design. The film is designed in the nature of an arthouse mystery one is constantly reminded of Last Year in Marienbad (1961), although the closest comparison is surely with Mervyn Peakes Gormenghast saga with its massively rambling and decayed castle world, which was badly filmed as Gormenghast (tv mini-series, 2000).
Malpertuis is a triumph of design. The grounds of Malpertuis are a world of barren, stripped bare woods and vast, decaying abbey ruins, all limned in mist, a world that holds a palpable sense of nothing growing there; the house with askewed spiral staircases that seem to ascend and descend into infinity; madcap laboratories with foetuses in bottles, rickety shelves and straw strewn across the floor; an attic with a rhomboidal infrastructure that trails off into perspective; wonderful names such as The Colour Shop (as to what it actually sells, one is never gets to find out); locked rooms coloured in the most exquisite azure blue drapings; low crimped corridors that twist and turn in strange ways; and even the outside world set among a warren of narrow cobbled streets and 17th Century crown glass windows where strange figures a boy with one leg, a blind man looking through the window of a shop lurk. It is a fabulous atmosphere that Harry Kumel has created one that suggests all manner of secrets, including adulteries and murders, taking place in its shadows.
The cast hold up well, with some of the relative weaknesses such as Matthieu Carrieres unvarying expression of perpetual crossness being buoyed up by Harry Kumels atmosphere. The best performances comes from Susan Hampshire who affects a remarkable chameleon shift between her three roles (four, if one counts her appearance as Matthieu Carrieres wife in the real world scenes at the end) between Alice the spinster in black who bubbles with repressed passion, the sweet and naive Nancy and the inhumanly beautiful red-haired Euryale. Harry Kumels triumph though is to obtain a surprise guest performance from Orson Welles as the patriarch who presides over the strange household.
Trailer here (in French):-
Film online in several parts beginning here:-