Alone in an old dark house on a stormy night, a young couple discover an ancient book in the attic. They begin reading the tale of the Malemort family who inhabit a creepy castle in 19th century rural France. Senile old Count Deroze (Pierre Forget) is forever fiddling his violin and fondling comely young housemaid Ida (Marielle Ollivier) who tolerates his lascivious attention because she and stern-faced, older maid Clemence (Nicole Chomo) are conspiring to uncover his hidden fortune. Meanwhile the Count’s daughter Maxime (Marie Hélène Règne), who conceals her sexual yearnings and a racy corset beneath a prim facade, is having an affair with handsome manservant Antoine (Christian Duroc). Although Antoine is in on the fortune-hunting plot and is adored by Ida, he has begun falling for Maxime for real. Everything changes when a dashing young captain (Françoise Guillaume) rides into town intent on bagging the treasure and Maxime for himself.
Strange and bewitching, Les Filles de Malemort is another of those offbeat mixtures of arty horror and softcore sex with a melancholy fairytale ambience that seemed to proliferate through European cinema in the Seventies. While essentially an oblique variation on motifs found in more coherent and unsettling Italian horror films, from Castle of Blood (1964) to the Wurdulak episode in Black Sabbath (1964) (whose climactic image of ghoulish faces at the window is repeated here) and aspects of Lisa and the Devil (1973), the film throws in some mind-bending twists to keep viewers off balance including the inexplicable intrusion of the blonde female half of the young couple into the Malemort story, appearing as a male character who is either an undertaker or an angel of death.
The languid pace and detached dreamlike tone bear comparison with the work of France’s underrated vampire auteur Jean Rollin, but the film also functions as a surreal study of repressed bourgeois psychosexual urges a la Luis Buñuel and includes vaguely political undertones as the aristocratic characters sexually exploit their servants. One must admit though, such perceived qualities are up for debate given co-writer-director Daniel Daert strives to be as vague as possible. While the story plays second fiddle to the eerie mood conjured by striking orange-tinted, semi sepia-tone cinematography from Georges Stouve, fairytale decor reminiscent of Jean Cocteau and a spooky score composed by Vladimir Cosma under the alias Richard Eldwyn, the film is intriguingly scripted and sensitively played as thwarted passions drive characters to madness, violence and tragedy before the whole cycle looks set to repeat itself a hundred years later. Nevertheless, Les Filles de Malemort is a little too esoteric to capture the imagination with odd editing that borders on the haphazard and a plot that keeps stopping for more picturesque softcore groping. At the end of the day viewers may still struggle to decide whether it is a sensual art-horror film or a sex romp with pretensions.