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Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
Plenty of noteworthy films have been canceled, shelved or otherwise chloroformed before seeing the light of day. The famous 1965 documentary The Epic That Never Was collects dailies from Josef von Sternberg's legendary abandoned I, Claudius, yielding great insight into the working problems of the famous actor Charles Laughton. But we're also curious about another movie that never was, MGM's epic presentation of Andre Malraux's Man's Fate. A regime change wiped out Fred Zinnemann's production literally weeks before shooting was to begin, when the film was entirely cast and giant sets already built.
Clouzot was one of the established French directors that the New Wave tried to sweep away as outmoded, obsolete. The reputation of his tense thrillers -- that seemingly even made Alfred Hitchcock jealous -- prevented that. Clouzot's best movies may be conventional in form, but they're far more powerful than anything by Truffaut or Godard.
As explained in the film's narration and interviews, the cast and crew of L'enfer knew Clouzot as a brilliant strategist who planned everything to the nth degree, often storyboarding every shot. He took test shots of every angle so as to optimize all visual elements. The cast didn't mind that he coached their performances to conform tightly into his vision: he knew what he wanted and always made his actors look good. But that's not how it worked out on this picture. The dailies tell a frightening story of a director who never found what he wanted. He reacted by shooting things over, badgering his cast and confusing his crew. The producer Clouzot never curbed the excesses of the director Clouzot. The large budget from Columbia Pictures was spent in months of visual experiment, followed by only a few weeks (if I heard right) of intense dramatic shooting that never seemed to get anywhere.
Clouzot's dailies were preserved in perfect shape; what makes Bromberg's L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot a must-see item are its uncut snatches of brilliant filmmaking, especially a treasure trove of arresting dream-imagery experiments.
The mystery of L'enfer is the fact that Clouzot started with a straightforward story of obsessive jealousy. Odette (Romy Schneider) and Marcel (Serge Reggiani of Le Doulos) own a hotel on a lake, but Marcel agonizes over Odette's perceived infidelity, with a local mechanic and others. He imagines orgies with other hotel guests, and Odette's hairdresser friend Marylou (Dany Carrel of Mill of the Stone Women). As the dailies show, waking reality is in B&W, while Marcel's brain-numbing suspicions are represented in strange colors. These jealous mind-storms, where his head seems to be exploding, engage crazy psychedelic visual distortions.
Clouzot's ambitious plan was to make a new kind of movie that communicates Marcel's obsession in non-verbal ways. Most of what we see appear to be refinements of the kind of silent expressionism well known by film cognoscenti. The dailies show a successful use of a train to underline the pressure on Marcel. Looming over the lake next to the hotel is an enormous railroad bridge. Precise compositions frame Marcel in its arches as the train passes. It's sharp whistle jabs at his psyche -- at one point it sounds when Marcel is happily embracing Odette, and he jerks away from her violently, as if the whistle has triggered his jealous anger. The story is familiar enough -- pushed to the limit, Odette angrily spouts untrue confessions to 'corroborate' her husband's accusations, just to get back at him. It all ends up very much like various versions of Carmen.
The real draw is to see the amazing visuals Clouzot's crack technical crew came up with to illustrate Marcel's jealous rages. There's a comparison with Stanley Kubrick's search for 'inconceivable' images for his 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Stargate effect came through 100%, but for many other scenes Kubrick eventually had to settle for the images his crew could give him. Comparatively speaking, Clouzot's trick-film crew did better. They strived for great effects through months of R&D, laughing when an idea flopped and exulting when they found something new. Shots use double exposures, distorted mirrors, moire effects and bizarre color lighting in highly creative ways. Even though all the effects are in-the-camera 'organic,' many do not betray how exactly they were done.
A startling B&W shot expresses Marcel's violent reaction all too well. In deep focus, a nude Odette lies on the railroad tracks, writhing in terror as the train hurtles toward her. The flawless effect is not an optical; I can only guess that it was accomplished with a large mirror. Other effects are refinements of standard 'dream scene' techniques, with distorting mirrors creating disturbing sights. Image-multiplying prisms divide parts of Odette's face and body into obsessive objects, almost like the blind man's sculptures of female body parts in Masumura's disturbing Moju.
Other visuals seem to be Marcel's exaggeration of possibly harmless sights -- he keeps seeing Marylou brazenly baring a nipple. Since we don't know exactly how Clouzot would have cut these dailies, this is just a guess.
The strangest trick was to reverse-print color footage, scrambling all the color values; we see plenty of 'dream' footage with actors in odd face paint and blue lipstick, that's meant to bring their faces partly back to 'normal' while everything else remains inverted. Anything is possible today (see Pleasantville) but Clouzot's experts were limited to standard tricks do-able in a photochemical laboratory.
Topping everything are pre-psychedelic images of Romy Schneider apparently meant to represent Marcel's boundless fascination for her. Her beauty electrifies him but also seems to threaten his virility. These are various 'abstract' close-ups in which Schneider acts out sensations of ecstasy, laughing, smoking a cigarette, writhing in passion, etc. The cameramen must have started by simply projecting images onto Schneider's face and body, as in fashionable title sequences of the day. But the refinements are startling. Contrasting colors spin around her -- we can see the lights of some kind of spinning rig reflected in her eyes. The dizzying changes in shadows make her face appear to change shape, as if it were plastic, or the beginning of a physical transformation. Schneider's face is frequently awash in reflective emulsions, some of them with shiny substances or maybe tiny sequins. She's literally transformed into a glittery goddess, all reflected highlights. In some of the shots, her face seems composed of a galaxy of stars.
There's plenty of powerful imagery here: Clouzot certainly had the makings of some jarring dream hallucinations, perhaps as powerful as the cartoon animation Hitchcock used in Vertigo.
So what went wrong? According to his colleagues, Clouzot went entirely off the deep end with artistic frustration. Did he feel he wasn't accomplishing the revolutionary cinematic style he wanted? Did he see that, no matter what he did, he was going to come up with a clear-cut conventional drama with predictable cuts to 'fancy stuff' to illustrate Marcel's not-so-special psychosis? The way he abused his actors, was he in a state of artistic panic? Was he bearing down in the belief that his cast and crew were not giving him some elusive quality he couldn't express?
Bromberg allows his interviewees to explain how Clouzot had engaged three crack camera crews to help him shoot faster. But on the set he refused to coordinate them into an efficient tag team. Two crews sat idle while the formerly-decisive director did nothing. The big stars Reggiani and even Schneider ran out of patience. The end of filming came with an actor mutiny and a heart attack.
Bromberg uses BTS footage and stills of the shoot to flesh out the strange dysfunctional predicament on the set. We see big stars visiting with everyone smiling as if great things are happening, but the footage of H.G. Clouzot does not show a happy man. Had he painted himself into a corner or gone too far out on a creative limb? Did he come to believe that he was becoming the useless Old Guard that the New Wave insisted had to exit the stage? Clouzot had always been a tough, cynical professional, and not the type that one would think would crack up this way.
To explain what the story was all about, Bromberg uses actors Bérénice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin to perform the key acting scenes that Clouzot never got around to filming. They're quite good. In the final estimation, those abstract special effect images are the lasting gift of L'enfer. They are more magical and arresting than the faux-psychedelic representations of mind-blowing hallucinations in acid-rock movies, Roger Corman drug epics, etc. But anything might have happened if Clouzot had been able to get his act together and finish his picture. Clouzot might have rejected all of the abstract experimentation, and gone in a different direction altogether.
Arrow Academy's Blu-ray of Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot) is a fine encoding of this latter-day documentary. Rarely do we see new outtakes preserved as well as this. The Clouzot estate must have stored them well. We wonder if had to be made with Columbia for this footage, that they spent so much money on back in 1964.
Colors are stunning and the B&W footage is equally gorgeous. No synch-sound footage is used, either because the sound was lost, or perhaps because re-synching it would trigger payments for actors? (that's a really wild guess).
Arrow has been literally killing us with wonderful rare surprises in the last two years. This Inferno came out in 2009 and we've been waiting all this time for a Region A Blu-ray. The company's extras are illuminating even if some of them are extensions of what Serge Bromberg produced, like They Saw Inferno, additional interview material compiled into a lengthy featurette. Lucy Mazdon's video essay on Clouzot is quite good, especially for those unfamiliar with his work.
It's quite a disc. Come for the light show, stay for the insights into a fascinating director.
Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Supplements: Lucy Mazdon on Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French cinema expert and academic talks at length about the films of Clouzot and the troubled production of Inferno; They Saw Inferno, a featurette including unseen material, providing further insight into the production; Filmed Introduction by Serge Bromberg, Interview with Serge Bromberg; Stills gallery, Original trailer; Illustrated collector's booklet with an essay by Ginette Vincendeau.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2018
Text (c) Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson