I still remember my first impression of Claude Chabrol. When I started getting interested in foreign cinema and read about things like the French New Wave, Chabrol was (and still is) always cited as the most Hitchcockian of his Hitchcock-loving cohorts. So, with the first two films of Chabrol's that I managed to get my hands on, This Man Must Die and The Unfaithful Wife, I was very surprised to find that he worked on a level very different from Hitchcock's commercial thrillers and aimed for a much more intellectual vein.
1994's L'Enfer is about a Paul (Francois Cluzet- Chocolat, Late August, Early September) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart- Manon of the Spring, 8 Women) Prieur, an attractive couple with a young child who run a small lakeside resort. Paul is a hard working, self made man, and Nelly is a beautiful, care free, and supportive wife. But the stresses of maintaining their life and business woes are getting to Paul and making him increasingly anxious. When he begins to notice spots in the day when Nelly is unaccounted for, incriminating situations, and the glances of other men, Paul suspects his wife of infidelity. He begins to follow and question her, but in the absence of any solid proof, Paul creates delusional scenarios and begins to listen to the suspicious voice in his head.
Not surprisingly, the results are excellent when you have a first rate cast and lead actors, an expert director, all working from as script by another master suspense film maker, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Diabolique, The Wages of Fear), who actually attempted to make the film in 1964 but never completed it due to setbacks ranging from replacing his lead actor to a heart attack.
L'Enfer is a film I can relate to, and, no, not because I hear voices in my head. I can, in my relationships, be a jealous, suspicious person. It is a flaw I have deeply examined and more or less determined comes not so much from personal insecurity as much as a pessimistic view of human nature. The Nelly/Paul dynamic reminds me (again, without the schitzo element) of the relationship I had with my first girlfriend. Although virginal, she unwittingly exuded sexuality and I had a hard time dealing with the fact that her attractiveness drew so much attention. It was this uncontrollable force, that in the end, I could not contend with. Nelly appears much the same way, she is spritely and looks like she pheremonally oozes sex. For the pressured Paul, this slowly spirals into the madness of paranoia and delusion. In his mind, he creates a sex siren image of his wife, complete with flirtatious eyes and purring voice, and no matter how he tries to reign his sanity in, the obsessiveness of jealousy overwhelms him.
So, there it is, a beautiful couple, an idyllic life, but from the very first frames there is that intangible presence of the weight of doubt. It grows and grows. Paranoia consumes. L'Enfer is a fantastic film about the brute, monestrous nature of jealousy. Chabrol is subtle with the ways he shows Paul's increasing madness, including shifting from reality to Paul's POV, which many reviewers misinterpreted as real and therefore questioned Nelly's fidelity. It becomes pretty clear, perhaps more so with a second or third viewing, that Paul is insane, and though Nelly may playfully toy with his suspicions at first (before she realizes he is bonkers), she is very much a devoted wife. And, that voice in his head? Well, it is not even his own. The madness itself speaks to him. He tries to argue. He tries to deny it. But it may already be too late. That is the mystery we'll never know.
The DVD: Kino. Apparently Kino has ported over the french MK2 release. Unfortunately, they did not account for the PAL speedup, resulting in the film moving a hair too fast, thus a speedup that makes the disc run for 97 minutes when it is a 100 minute film.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Previously released by Fox Lorber with a god-awful quality. Kino ports Region 2 transfer (used for both France's MK2 and the UK's Second Sight) which offers a fair, though flawed, edition. The color, contrast, and sharpness details are all quite good and the print is relatively clean. However, there are some compression artefacts and a slightly squeezed aspect ratio that make the image a bit lackluster. It is just not quite as crisp and detailed as it could be, and with it running at a too fast, Keystone Cops pace, the image is all the more bothersome.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 French language with optional English subtitles. Again, the problem lies with the speedup which makes an otherwise workmanlike soundtrack a tad too quick, resulting in in a higher overall pitch. The actors do not sound like chipmunks, but it does still sound a bit off.
Extras: Original French Trailer— Scene Specific Commentary with director Claude Chabrol (38:00). Wow, what a godsend. Chabrol discuses three key scenes and pretty much gives you a film school on how he used every cinematic tool (camera movement, blocking, audio, performance...) at his disposal to convey the thematic intent of the film. — Chabrol Discusses L'Enfer (11:00). Good interview with Chabrol talking about the evolution of the project. — Presentation by Scholar Joel Magny (3:00). Set to still from the film, Magny gives a critical overview of the film.
Conclusion: The film is so good that, transfer quibbles aside, I must recommend watching it. The extras are great; Chabrol's discussion about the film is extremely informative, as well as witty. But, though it is a great film, don't waste your cash on a subpar transfer. This one, sadly, gets a "rent it."