I must confess that I lack Harvey Chartrand’s enthusiasm for MALPERTUIS, which I have been dying to see for a long time; this greatly saddens me, as I love director Harry Kumel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, and believe that MALPERTUIS could have been, in more assured hands, a brilliant achievement. Instead, I find it an interesting failure, full of very real virtues, but even more terrible faults, worth seeing, for sure, for its extraordinary set design and cinematography; for its undeniably compelling narrative; and for, as Harvey correctly notes, Susan Hampshire’s mesmerizingly otherworldly performance(s). Unfortunately, Mathieu Carriere is amateurish, wooden and unconvincing in the lead; his attempt to appear enigmatic comes across as merely confused. There are also some poor supporting performances, although, thankfully, Welles is not one of them. Although I will have to watch the English version to catch the full force of his portrayal, even dubbed in Flemish Welles is appropriately magnetic and domineering in his “Mr. Clay” mold.
Where MALPERTUIS really falls apart for me is in Kumel’s inability to bring any kind of specific point of view to the story; he seems content to illustrate, rather than illuminate, his source, in this case a novel by Belgian fantasy writer Jean Ray. Harvey’s mention of THE TRIAL is apropos here, because Welles, in his adaptation, does what Kumel fails to do. Like any great artist, Welles has a very expansive, thematically complex, well thought out vision of the world, a vision that he conjures up, and explores facets of, in his various films. Every aspect of a Welles film, the script, the setting, the photography, the performances, the editing, etc., is completely subordinate to that vision, which is why, even when altered by others, they are so vivid and remarkably coherent. Welles’ sources, be they Shakespeare, or Kafka, or some pulp novelist, are never ends in themselves, but instead serve as springboards to launch the vision, and this accounts for the often extensive and highly criticized changes Welles makes to his material. Kumel, on the other hand, brings nothing; he is very obviously flailing around, and MALPERTUIS suffers for it. The film’s rhythm is off; Kumel never succeeds in creating a world, with its own peculiar internal logic; the odd shifts in tone and clunky editing patterns are extremely off-putting, and a good half hour could be chopped out of the running time without any great loss, especially during the awful tavern scene. MALPERTUIS does not seduce, there is no poetry in it, and without that seduction and sense of longing for another, earlier, more colorful, more interesting, more passionate, perhaps more dangerous, world than the one we inhabit, MALPERTUIS’ story has no raison d'etre. The climax, which should be a shattering emotional experience, becomes, instead, in Kumel's uncomprehending imagining, a trivial, incoherent mess.
I would love to have seen what Welles could have done with Ray’s novel. I have no idea if Welles read it, or any of Ray’s work, but given his well-known interest in Greek myth, and his reported enthusiasm for the project (at least in the beginning), this would not surprise me. Perhaps Kumel’s unfathomable hostility towards Welles lay in his subconscious realization that Welles, and not he, was really the man for the job.