Written by: Pieter Boven on September 13th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Belgium, March 1973 / Cannes, May 1972
Director: Harry Kümel
Writer: Jean Ferry
Cast: Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire, Michel Bouquet, Charles Janssens, Mathieu Carrière, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Walter Rilla, Dora van der Groen, Daniel Pilon, Sylvie Vartan
DVD released: August 29, 2005
Approximate running time: 119 min. / 100 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
DVD Release: Belgian Royal Filmarchive
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL (Belgium)
Retail Price: 21,00 EUR
When Jan, a sailor, returns to his hometown he discovers his house and family have disappeared from the face of the earth. After the fruitless pursuit of a girl, who he mistakes for his sister, the confused young man gets in a bar fight and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself at Malpertuis, the home of his uncle Cassavius. Cassavius is dying and about to divide his vast fortune between his heirs. There is a catch however. In order to inherit, they may never leave Malpertuis again. Trapped in the mysterious house consisting of endless corridors, staircases, secret rooms and locked doors, Jan tries to discover the secret of Malpertuis…
Based on the novel of the same name by Belgian writer Jean Ray, directed by Harry Kümel with photography from Gerry Fisher and music from Georges Delerue, blessed with an international star cast consisting of Orson Welles, Michel Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Mathieu Carrière, Charles Janssens, Dora van der Groen and Susan Hampshire in 3 different roles, and a budget of about $1 million to match, Malpertuis is probably the most ambitious film ever to come out of Belgium. Unfortunately the editing process led to 2 different versions. The version presented at the 1972 Cannes Festival, edited by Richard Marden, was rejected by Harry Kümel who got permission to edit his own Flemish version which was released in Belgian theatres the following year. The film was not a success, met with bad reviews but now has some sort of cult status. Previously, the Cannes version was available on budget French and Spanish DVDs. Now the Belgian Royal Film archive has released a 2-disc special edition DVD, containing both versions and numerous extras, in their prestigious Chronicle of Flemish Film 1955-1990 series. Does this film finally get the attention it deserves?
Video: Disc 1 contains the Kümel version clocking in at 119m19s. The original negative was scanned in 2K resolution and restored under supervision of the director himself. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It looks absolutely fantastic with superb colours,
contrast, sharpness and is virtually free of speckles or scratches. However there are some problems, which are most likely due to the fact that this version was edited from second choice and left-over material. After a scene changes there is often some frame instability which can become distracting once you start to notice it. Also several scenes curiously end with a freeze frame where grain and dirt becomes noticeable. Some very minor instances of ghosting (not due to interlacing), frame jumps, damage and colour fluctuation also popped up.
Disc 2 contains the 20 minute shorter Cannes version (99m38s) preceded by an informative “Rejected by Harry Kümel” sign. This version was apparently created from a television master in good condition and is also presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although a fine transfer, it’s really no match for the Kümel version on Disc 1 as you can see from the screenshots. The colours and contrast are not in the same league and we can see more speckles and print damage. Plus I also seemed to notice a minor digital error around 69 min. On the other hand, this version is not plagued by the frame instability around scene changes. People that prefer this version may be a bit disappointed but it’s unrealistic to expect the same re-mastering as on Disc 1, especially considering the director’s dislike of this version.
Audio: Disc 1 only contains only a Flemish dub presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The audio is very clear with no background hiss or other distracting annoyances. I want to applaud the authors of the DVD to include only the original mix and not spend any money or waste disc space on a stupid 5.1 remix. Optional, well written subtitles are available in Dutch, English and French. Disc 2 has the French and English dub also in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Both tracks sound fine without any major problems. There are unfortunately no subtitles whatsoever on this version. Interestingly, the selected audio track also affects the
language of the begin and end credits by making use of multi-angle technology, overall very nicely done.
Extras: Please note all the extras are in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby digital 2.0 and either spoken or subtitled in Dutch, English and French unless otherwise noted.
Disc 1 harbors a real goldmine of extras. First of all, the animated menus are available in Dutch, French or English. The design is nothing special but they are easy to use and navigate. We get a scene selection with 8 chapters which seems a bit stingy for a 2 hour movie. There are 2 documentaries produced especially for this DVD. First we have “The Malpertuis Archives” (37m22s) about the movie and director in general and containing interviews with the director, cinematographer, producer and actors. Next we have “Orson Welles Uncut” (25m54s) which elaborates on the problems with Orson Welles on the set. Then we have 3 different commentary tracks in Dutch, English and French which must be a first. The Dutch commentary is Harry Kümel by himself but in the French and English one he is joined by Françoise Levie. She was his assistant on the set, daughter of the producer and also responsible for several extras on the DVD. The French track seemed the most interesting to me but since these commentaries are not subtitled most people are probably limited to the English one, unfortunately the language in which both speakers seem the least comfortable. There is rarely a moment of silence but naturally the commentaries overlap a lot. Kümel and Françoise have a lot of interesting things to say and Kümel is not afraid to admit mistakes. He explains the meaning of what we see on screen, comments on the lighting, points out cut scenes in the Cannes version and tells us amusing anecdotes. Even if he does praise his technicians a lot, especially the cinematographer Gerry Fisher, it doesn’t become too annoying because it’s obvious he has every right to.
Disc 2 is no different. We get a mixed language menu here but no scene selection as the Cannes version contains no chapters which is somewhat annoying. As extras we have the un-subtitled full screen French trailer (3m27s) which, like most French trailers, is just plain boring. Next we have “Malpertuis Revisited” (4m54s) in which Kümel revisits several locations where the movie was shot. In “Susan Hampshire, one actress, three parts” (11m43s) the actress is interviewed about her 3 roles and there are interventions from Kümel and Fisher about her make-up and lighting. “Jean Ray – John Flanders” (7m33s) consists of some rather uninteresting stock footage from an interview with the novel’s writer. Finally we have 2 short films directed by Kümel. Aether (7m05s) from 1960 has no dialogue and is strangely enough presented in an anamorphic 1.33:1 frame, with large black bars on the sides. De Grafbewaker (35m13s) from 1965 is shown full frame, but is in Dutch and no subtitles are available.
The DVD contains a small booklet in Dutch with information about the movie, the director, the restoration and other DVDs in the series. Inside the transparent keep-case we can read extracts from several old Dutch, French and English magazine reviews of Malpertuis, printed on the backside of the cover. Most of them are not very flattering, emphasizing the artistic non-commercial approach of this DVD. Also the cover looks very nice using the original poster art.
Overall: On a visual level, everything in this movie – the colour schemes, lighting, sets & costumes – is amazing. I was already impressed with Kümel’s style in Daughters of Darkness and Eline Vere but this is on an ever higher level, although a lot of credit goes to the cinematographer Gerry Fisher. The acting is top notch but somewhat hampered by the dubbing. Because of the international cast no original version exists. Being a native Dutch speaker I found the Dutch version inferior to the English dub and sometimes even annoying, especially Bideloo’s voice. This is probably largely due to the fact that Kümel himself dubs 6 different characters instead of using professional voice actors and also I’m not used to Dutch dubs, as subtitles are the norm over here. The movie itself is weird and incomprehensible to say the least, even after watching the commentaries and extras, and definitely requires repeated viewings. The Kümel version is substantially different from the Cannes version, which seemed to exclude important scenes making it even harder to understand. However, there are probably a lot of people that prefer this shorter version. The DVD gives you the choice, albeit in lesser quality.
Like all the other DVDs in this series, it’s obvious this DVD was produced with a lot of care by the Belgian Royal Film archive. I do wonder if some of the remaining problems with the image could have not been solved digitally but I’ll assume it was either technically impossible or (more likely) too expensive. Even though most of the extras are available in 3 languages, which is rarely seen, you need to understand Dutch, English and French to get the most out of this DVD. If you don’t, you will miss out on one thing or the other. The strangest omission in my opinion is the absence of subtitles (and chapters) on the Cannes version, especially for Dutch and French only viewers who want to hear Orson Welles’s original voice. The editor of the Cannes version, Richard Marden, is nowhere to be seen or heard in the extras. A confrontation with Kümel should have been very interesting. Still, I’m nitpicking here since on most DVDs you will not get this amount of material. This intriguing movie, with an abundance of style and atmosphere, and high quality DVD comes highly recommended.