The strange fate of what might have become a major French film of the ’60s is compellingly related in “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno.” Built around some fascinating, never-seen footage of tests and scenes shot before the picture shuttered three weeks into production, Serge Bromberg’s and Ruxandra Medrea’s enterprising documentary was a highlight of this year’s Cannes Classics sidebar and reps a must-see for curious film buffs at fests, in ancillary and even in limited theatrical engagements in cinema-savvy cities including Paris, where the film will bow in cinemas in the fall.
Clouzot, considered the French Hitchcock due to his massively successful ’50s thrillers “The Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique,” embarked in 1963 on “L’enfer,” a study of jealousy tipping into madness in which he set himself the task of expressing personal demons in uniquely visual terms. Ultra-prepared as usual with meticulous notes and storyboards, Clouzot proceeded, per the filmmakers, with an unlimited budget and no completion date — which, given that this is never done in the world of the commercial cinema, deserves a bit of explanation.
But conventional expectations for documentaries differ somewhat between France and English-speaking countries, so the chroniclers never bother to explain where the film’s funding came from. Also missing are two very salient facts: The chronically sick Clouzot had spent most of the ’30s in a sanatorium, unable to work, and had already had three film projects aborted at different stages. Small narration additions addressing these points would go a long way to clarifying the context for the drama to come.
These irritatants notwithstanding, Bromberg, a film restoration specialist who learned of the existence of 185 cans of “L’enfer” footage while stuck with Clouzot’s widow Ines in a stalled elevator, and Medrea quickly immerse the viewer in some mesmerizing material. The color and black-and-white studio tests Clouzot did with his stunning 26-year-old star, Romy Schneider, are amazing; hallucinatory and trippy in a disciplined, pre-psychedelic way, they split the screen into countless identical images, use whirling lights to visually alter the impassively posed actress’ moods with dizzying speed, employ glittering color and makeup effects to unknown eventual ends, and at one point aim to create “optical coitus” with a zoom lens.
Presumably, most of these visual tricks were designed to convey the increasingly demented mental state of the protagonist, a lakeside hotel owner played by 42-year-old Serge Reggiani, who, in typically morbid Clouzot fashion, becomes convinced his young wife is having an affair with a local Lothario.
Shot in July 1964, the monochrome location footage is dominated by scenes of Reggiani trying to spy inconspicuously on Schneider. It’s perfectly decent, if unspectacular, expository stuff, designed to set up the drama and torment to come.
There is nothing about the material, however, to suggest the behind-the-scenes traumas being played out. Through interviews with nine cast and crew members, including thesp Catherine Allegret, then-production assistant Costa Gavras and assistant cinematographer William Lubtchansky, an astounding account develops of directorial anxiety, neurosis and, eventually, paralysis.
Having enaged three complete camera crews to speed shooting, Clouzot dawdled over simple sequences for hours without telling the other two crews what to do; an insomniac, he awoke collaborators throughout the night to discuss work issues, and he “tortured” his actors to the point where Reggiani walked off the picture after three weeks.
“What the film lacked all along was a producer,” observes one survivor, “someone to clash with.” The implication is that, after clashing with everyone around him, Clouzot had no one else to clash with at the end of the day but himself. Docu leaves the ultimate explanation a bit open, refusing to draw absolute lines between the film’s content and the director’s mental state, but it doesn’t take much effort to do the math.
In the end, the dominant image one is left with from “L’enfer” is of an utterly radiant Schneider. The Austrian actress placed herself entirely in her director’s hands and, from the evidence, was an entirely cooperative collaborator with a very difficult and troubled man. Every shot reveals her as a wonderful camera subject, a woman who easily injected life and vitality into otherwise neutral environments. One feels the film would have merited keen interest if only for her alone, although the effects footage suggests Clouzot was on to something that he perhaps simply didn’t know how to push to the necessary outer — or inner — limits.
All the original Clouzot footage — culled from what is variously described as 13 and 15 hours of total material — was missing any soundtrack, so for some key missing dramatic scenes relating to existing footage, Bromberg filmed actors Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin acting out Schneider’s and Reggiani’s roles in a studio, to OK effect.
Well cut and organized, the docu is greatly enhanced by Bruno Alexlu’s strong score.