Harry Kumel's 1971 DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS has been one of my favorite vampire films, actually one of my all time favorite horror films, since I first saw it at the drive-in, mid summer 1972. Hearing the director state that he now "detests" the film in the fascinating documentary REFLECTIONS OF DARKNESS: DEL VALLE ON KUMEL is something of an object lesson in how a lack of appreciation for one's strengths along with a tendency to blame others for career setbacks while attacking other filmmakers (Lars Von Trier, Truffaut, Orson Welles) who are seen as threats, can isolate and cripple a talented artist. After the failure of MALPERTUIS Kumel retreated to television projects. I have to commend David Del Valle, who asks all the right questions, for his patience and steadfast belief in Kumel. It's not a pretty picture of a filmmaker I have long admired and I wouldn't want to ever spend another minute in his boorish company, but it sure reminded me about that old warning about never assuming anything about anyone. I have little patience with pompous, embittered, aging directors who are out to make one last kill-off, but damned if couldn't stop watching this. This 74 minute interview, endearingly low-tech and presided over with panache by film historian Del Valle, had me picking my jaw up off the floor and is just one of the many excellent extras on the new BARREL entertainment 2 disc SE DVD presentation of Kumel's fated follow up to DOD, the gorgeous, sinister and thoroughly compelling MALPERTUIS.
Based on a novel by the Belgian fantasy/crime writer Jean Ray/Jean Flanders (there's a charming seven minute featurette on him included on disc 2, including wonderful archival footage of the writer discussing his memories, writing habits and influences. Ray is avuncular, self effacing and wise, the exact opposite of Harry Kumel) one would think that a visually elegant Belgian Surrealist like Kumel (working from a script by Jean Ferry, who was part of the original Surrealist group in France in the early 20th century) would be the perfect man for the task. As in most Surrealist literature the "story" is a pretext for a mutating narrative which is there to illustrate the rich prose of Ray and a certain quote by the creator of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, at least in the restored 119 m 1973 "Director's Cut." Not that Harry Kumel deserves a director's cut (you can appreciate that I really like this guy) but his film certainly does. The "Cannes Version" goes down a lot smoother (I also prefer the shorter version of DOD over Kumel's dilatory cut) and has the great advantage of featuring the real voices of Orson Welles (Cassavius) and the strikingly lovely Susan Hampshire, who plays three (or is it four?) very demanding and greatly varying roles with
complexity, sensuality, and mystery.
Along with Ms. Hampshire, Orson Welles dominates the film as the gruff Uncle Cassavius, presiding over his dysfunctional family from his death-bed in the dreaded manse, Malpertuis where sailor Jan (Matthieu Carriere) will find love, sex, death, rebirth and eternal imprisonment. And much, much more.
This could have been a great film instead of a very interesting, beautifully lit (by Gerry Fisher cf his work in 1967's ACCIDENT for Joseph Losey) and very well acted cul de sac. "It's pretty...but difficult to understand" Alice notes at the opening image of the director's cut (the Cannes version plays its credits under a more appropriate Surrealist canvas) and that perfectly describes the film. The influence of such Surrealist painters as Magritte is duly noted by Kumel and Del Valle and is incorporated into the set design in a way comparable to the Bunuel 1930 Surrealist classic L'AGE D'OR (coauthored by yet another legendary Surrealist, Dali). You won't be asking yourself "Life, what is it but a dream?" but the sense of wonderment imparted by the team of Kumel, Fisher and his extraordinary cast, not to forget the transporting score of the great Georges Delerue, will have you, and me, returning to the conundrum of MALPERTUIS many times over. Overlong and indulgent, MALPERTIUS is nonetheless a legendary curiousity which is not to be missed and try watching one of the versions on a double bill with Jess Franco's A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING dead to find some interesting comparisons whle remembering Franco's professional relationship with Orson Welles as assistant director (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT), director (TREASURE ISLAND project) and post production supervisor 1993's disastrous DON QUIJOTE DE ORSON WELLES.
Disc one gives us the 25 documentary ORSON WELLES: UNCUT, directed by Francoise Levie, an assistant director on Malpertuis, who also directed the Jean Ray documentary and attempts to keep Kumel in check on his commentary track (the commentary further confirms Kumel's passive-aggresive tactic of admitting to some error and then immediately moving to criticize another European director). The point of all this seems to be that Welles was, in Kumel's words, a "bastard" on set and a great drinking companion during long lunches. Kumel seems to delight in stories of Welles' misbehavior: calling his own cuts, interrupting other actors during takes, demanding, and [ineptly] applying, his own old-man make up, drinking and eating to excess, wasting time. But it's also obvious that Kumel allowed Welles these luxuries, was fearful of cracking down and had some kind of envy-need pertaining to the creator of CITIZEN KANE. Comments by the Susan Hampshire, and the equally other-worldly Matthieu Carriere (who seems to me perfectly cast as the "clean slate" Jan) seem to bear this out.
The new, high definition transfer of the 119 m version is quite good, the 100 m element somewhat less good, but always colorful and clear. And Gerry Fisher's luminous colors are what this experience is really all about. Note Kumel's trademark crimsons in the Venus Bar sequences and the drowning-pool blues in the corridors of the mansion. In 1.85:1 16X9, it's an intoxicating experience no matter which version you choose, and I would suggest starting with the longer.
Orson Welles has been on my mind a lot lately, after having read Joseph McBride's essential 2006 volume, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO ORSON WELLES?, which discusses in some detail the 1993 Jess Franco version of Welles' unfinished DON QUIXOTE project, begun in the mid 1950s. I highly recommend this book, if not the Spanish DVD of this highly controversial project. Franco is still reeling from the rejection of his cut by Welles scholars from all over the world. I have a slightly differing viewpoint. If you go to Wellesnet.com you can read my recent posts on the DQ message boards.
One impressive scene not included in the Franco assembly is now available for viewing on You Tube. It shows Quixote attacking the screen in an old European movie house showing a 1950s Peplum. A great scene, perhaps the best Welles ever filmed. I'll have a lot more to say about the DQ furor in the near future.
Orson Welles / Don Quichotte http://youtube.com/watch?v+cHQEViM3QYU
(C) Robert Monell, 2007