By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Malpertuis,” Barrel Entertainment, Inc.]
A peculiar side effect of 125+ years of mass entertainment culture has been the snark hunt: the desire for the maudit, music or books or films that have been largely scorned or misunderstood or forgotten or all three, but which, it is held by the lone, courageous voice crying in the wilderness, are in fact sublime and subversive and ultracool. We all know of movies like this (“cult” is the too-often applied term in the U.S.), and we all also nurse ardor for some unique examples ourselves (OK, me: Kalatozov’s “The Letter Never Sent” (1959), Fassbinder’s “Whity” (1970), Buñuel’s lowliest Mexican films, Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (1977), Jean Rollin’s “The Living Dead Girl” (1982), the Bill Murray version of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984), Alex Cox’s “Walker” (1987), and so on).
Harry Kümel’s “Malpertuis” (1971) is a prime and much mooned-over example ambitious and crazy, rarely seen, butchered by its producers, mocked at Cannes, and, up to now, a stranger to home video. (It’s never even been shown on American TV.) Truth be told, no film could quite live up to the decades of subterranean fanboy hype it’s inadvertently produced. As it stands in the new DVD, in a director’s cut version 19 minutes longer than the truncated original Kümel’s loopy Belgian launch of surrealism (adapted from a novel by prolific pulpmeister Jean Ray) is vintage, post-New Wave Euro-nonsense, with an international cast (led by a bedridden Orson Welles) all broadly dubbed into Flemish and all embodying their roles as if they’re in a Halloween pageant. The story is appropriately dream-like: on shore leave, a callow sailor (Mathieu Carrière) visits a cartoonish brothel/nightclub, is knocked out and wakes up where he presumably started: back in the huge, labyrinthine family mansion of the title, where the leering, grinning, moping family members, servants and hangers-on wait impatiently for Welles’ sweaty patriarch to die. This “house of the damned” is never seen from the outside concrete reality of all sorts is not a factor. Naturally, there’s a secret to be revealed, and it has something to with why Euryale (Susan Hampshire) cannot look at someone without turning them to stone…
Kümel’s first feature, “Les Lèvres Rouges” (Daughters of Darkness), released earlier the same year, is a widely appreciated elegant-decadent rejigger of vampire lore set in a bedazzlingly barren off-season seaside hotel. “Malpertuis” is as inelegant a movie as you can imagine, in your face, lit like a carnival and entranced with its own grotesqueries. Hampshire deserves an award of some kind for playing four distinct roles and only conjuring the vague sense that Kümel hired a number of somewhat similar-looking actresses to fill up his cluttered rooms. But, frankly, the phantasmagoric allure of Kümel’s most notorious film flew right by me (though not past David Del Valle, the starry-eyed Malpertuisian who wrote the copious liner notes), as much as its expression of a kind of 1960s-70s lawless filmmaking well-funded and targeting a large counter-culture audience, but still often outrageously ridiculous made it a sweet place to visit. You have to see it, of course, and I’m glad I did, finally, after all these years.
Almost that film’s 21st century counterpart, Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” which has been out on DVD for a while, following its panicked micro-release earlier this year, but which I just caught up with is a snark-hunted freak just waiting for its historical moment, decades from now, when someone makes a case for it as a neglected masterpiece. It’s certainly been treated like boot-stuck dog crap for now which, given Gilliam’s unpredictable nose for audience-pleasing, can make any hardy cinephile predisposed to love it. I can’t say I fall into that camp entirely it may be one of those films that require a distanced cultural context, not the demands of the marketplace now, to frame it but it is certainly a strange, slouching beast of a film, whose slouching is a ferocious effort to, as Gilliam says in his pleading DVD intro, capture the world through the imagination-fogged eyes of a child. It certainly does that “Tideland” lurches and lopes around its lone prairie farmhouse, its rotting corpses and its defiantly self-preservative heroine (Jodelle Ferland, capable of unearthly rapport with the camera) as if lost in the skull of a daydreaming trauma victim. Other filmmakers have put their viewers through ordeals, aiming for a cathartic final stage, but usually rigor, depletion and shocking violence are the tools in use. Gilliam’s familiar, post-Python visual style reads instead like a cinematic code for pop-fantasy fun and games did he realize we might misread his intentions, that his style was in conflict with his material? Or do they seem in conflict only because we’ve been preconditioned to think that Gilliam’s emphatic, fish-eyed palette and the cinema-of-cruelty art film are mutually exclusive? This may not be the right question to ask, but we may not figure out what the right questions are for years to come.
“Malpertuis” (Barrel Entertainment) will be available on DVD on July 24th; “Tideland” (Velocity/Thinkfilm) is now available on DVD.