Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Romy Schneider

Serge Bromberg’s much-lauded documentary, on limited UK release from today, tells the story of revered French director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ill-fated attempt to create his cinematic opus: L’Enfer (‘Inferno’ or, more commonly, ‘Hell’). In 1964, Clouzot, working with an unlimited budget, a handpicked crew, and total creative autonomy, set out on the project which would live up to its name before long.

Clouzot made his reputation as a thriller director: his 1950s films The Wages of Fearand Diabolique earned him the sobriquet ‘the French Hitchcock’ and brought him great acclaim both in his native country as well as internationally. But it was L’Enfer that Clouzot hoped would create a lasting legacy; not just for him as a filmmaker but in its transformation of cinema itself. Shifts in the boundaries of visual effects, storytelling, psychological exposition – all of these things were part of Clouzot’s ambition.

The film itself was to tell of a man, Marcel (Serge Reggiani), and his wife Odette (Romy Schneider), proprietors of a hotel in rural France. Told in flashback (the opening scene has Marcel standing over Odette’s dead body, razor blade in hand), the story recounts their once idyllic relationship’s demise at the hands of Marcel’s irrepressible jealousy. As his wife cavorts with the locals and revels in a carefree existence, Marcel becomes more and more convinced of her infidelity. Yet with proof only of his deteriorating mental state, his neuroses become as much about self-doubt as paranoia, which serves only to debilitate him further until (we must assume) he comes over all Othello.

Bromberg’s documentary investigates why the project was abandoned only three weeks into filming, and combines a frank retelling by a variety of people close to the project (both cast and crew) with the never-before-seen rushes and screen tests. The piece is well put together, and while L’Enfer’s ultimate collapse is no unique story – the director’s obsessive nature alienated his cast, including lead man Regianni, who quit the project – the details behind its grand ambition are absorbing.

clouzotThe weeks of screen tests, visual experimentation and make-up analysis all give an insight into Clouzot’s meticulous approach to the endeavour. A desire to infuse the film with a synaesthetic quality led to research into kinetic art, colour distortion and layered audio. The groundbreaking work put in by the director and his team hints towards how remarkable the piece would have been, and makes one rueful of its collapse.

It is clear from the outset that the neurotic nature of L’Enfer’s leading man is a trait that Clouzot shared, and crew members recount his insomnia (he would wake them in the middle of the night if he thought of something to discuss), his distain of not working on Sundays, and his insistence on repeating even the most gruelling of takes over and over for no discernable reason. Combine this with the insular location – filming took place in and around a secluded hotel in the South of France – and it is not difficult to see how it all unravelled. Clouzot’s repeated clashes with (and overworking of) Serge Regianni led to his walking off set, and during the search for a replacement Clouzot suffered a heart attack. ‘Enfer’ it had become, and the project was shut down.

At times Bromberg’s documentary dwells excessively on certain details, and one feels it would benefit from a reduced running length. Little background is given on Clouzot himself, detail which would surely enhance the viewer’s ability to understand the breakdowns which his project underwent, and the narration often feels unnecessary or obtrusive. Yet overall this is a successful and engaging presentation of a cinematic story which deserved to be told. Those interviewed talk with pleasing honesty and the footage gives compelling insight into an esteemed director’s process. Even the reconstructions work surprisingly well. This is not a film that will attract a large audience, nor was that ever intended. But if one thinks there’s even a chance they might find it interesting, they most certainly will.

– Joel Gregory

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