(Inferno played at MSPIFF and opened in NYC a few weeks ago. Although it seems unlikely that it will make a second appearance in the Twin Cities, look for it on DVD in a few months. Originally published on In Review Online.)
Although the story of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Enfer began over 45 years ago, the short history of this documentary began in a Paris elevator where director Serge Bromberg was stuck for two hours with the widow of the celebrated French director. Their conversation easily drifted to Clouzot’s films but eventually landed on his one true regret, the unfinished L’Enfer (aka Inferno or more poignantly Hell) and the 185 cans of unused film sitting dormant. This incredible moment of serendipity is laid out in the prologue of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, but what isn’t mentioned is the light bulb that must have been glowing in the film archivist’s head within the close quarters of that elevator. The compulsory comment, that Bromberg must have uttered as delicately as possible during the conversation, is almost palpable: “I would love to take a look at those reels of film.” Fortunately, there must have been something in Bromberg that Inès de Gonzalez trusted enough to allow him and co-director Ruxandra Medrea full access to the footage of what could have been Clouzot’s greatest success, but turned into his greatest failure. Inferno unveils a revelatory patchwork of Clouzot’s swoon-worthy footage that will have you wishing you could turn back the hands of time and alter the film’s cruel fate.
Inferno is a balancing act of discovering the unseen hours of film Clouzot shot, and giving it some context. Built from interviews with the crew, the documentary dissects a production fueled and doomed by obsession. In 1964 L’Enfer was the highly anticipated follow up to La Vérité from Clouzot, a director sometimes referred to as the French Hitchcock. Even before the first clapperboard was snapped, L’Enfer was being built up to be Clouzot’s best yet, even at his own assessment. About a man consumed by jealousy, this relatively large production received a point-blank “unlimited budget” from Columbia executives who had simply seen some of the screen tests. Assembling a star cast, with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani in the leads, and a talented crew, L’Enfer became consumed by possibilities that no one but Clouzot seemed to understand. Obsessed with manipulating sound and image that would fit the mood of his madness, Clouzot plagued his crew with changes and rewrites that sent many people packing, including Reggiani. Just as it seemed that the film had been pushed to the brink and beyond, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and, by orders from the doctor, L’Enfer came to an abrupt and portentous halt.
What is left is hours of footage that are so incredibly seductive, on a visual and emotional level, it’s completely astounding and heartbreaking that nothing ever came of it. Much of what we see in Inferno are the artful screen tests with Schneider, the images of which will haunt my dreams for an eternity. Clouzot’s camera seems to have taken on the same obsessive quality towards Schneider as her fictional husband would have in the film, with no end to the experiments with Schneider’s alluring face as the hypnotic focal point. Much of the soundtrack lost, Bromberg and Medrea try to build a well-rounded portrait of L’Enfer by staging portions of the script. But these digressions feel like having to eat your vegetables before you can have your cake. There is an analytical draw to the interviews with the production crew and to the analysis of Clouzot’s meticulous storyboards and preparations, but it doesn’t compared to the visceral pull of the film that Clouzot had a hand in. Even the straightforward black and white takes of Reggiani’s character contain the subtle mysterious aura of this ill-fated film. Unfortunately the three people who truly could have added another dimension to the documentary—Clouzot, Reggiani and Schneider—have all passed away leaving an undeniable gap in understanding Clouzot and L’Enfer.
The signs of the brilliance inside the chaos are there but painfully unsubstantiated. Imagine watching Hearts of Darkness if Apocalypse Now was never finished: this is what Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is. You get the feeling that Clouzot, a dogged planner, set out to show those off-the-cuff New Wavers how to make a cutting edge film, but his ambition and perhaps his ego completely did him in. After his heat attack, he worked for a few years in television earning enough money to finance his last film La Prisonnière (1968), incorporating many of the hallucinatory effects from L’Enfer with limited yet bizarre effect. Was this the film that Clouzot wanted to make in 1964? I don’t think so. But neither was Claude Chabrol’s half-hearted 1994 adaptation of the same name. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno tenders a fragmented tease open to endless speculation. Although Bromberg and Medrea have done a great service in bringing pieces of the unfinished film to an audience, their greatest achievement is pushing aside the idea that L’Enfer was a failure while immortalizing Clouzot’s creative zeal. The original source material will leave your head spinning with the images of a masterpiece that was not meant to be, but the documentary itself will leave you longing for more.