Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
Searing re-creation of a masterpiece gone wrong
Like “Lost in La Mancha,’’ “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno’’ is a documentary that re-creates a lost film and the disaster of its (un)making. It is also perfectly titled. The movie it commemorates was supposed to dramatize the inferno of a fictional character’s jealousy but the production itself proved to be hell for its director and everyone near him.
That director, Clouzot, was one of France’s great ones, with “Diabolique’’ (1955), “The Wages of Fear’’ (1953), and other knuckle-tightening suspense dramas to his credit. You could argue that Clouzot was a Gallic Hitchcock, darker and more intense, and that if things had worked out right, 1964’s “Inferno’’ might have been his “Vertigo’’ — a mature masterpiece.
Instead, the film gave its maker a breakdown and a heart attack. The director of this new documentary — part history, part restoration, all fascinating — is Serge Bromberg, who got hooked when he was stuck in a stalled elevator with a woman who turned out to be Clouzot’s widow. She led him to 85 cans of film, remnants of a movie that might have changed the cinema.
That sounds like hyperbole until you see the test footage shot by Clouzot and his crew. “Inferno’’ was to tell the story of Marcel (Serge Reggiani), a newly married man consumed with pathological jealousy toward his wife, Odette (Romy Schneider). While the “real-life’’ scenes were filmed in black and white, Clouzot shot Marcel’s inner fantasies in hothouse Technicolor and subjected them to tonal filters, prismatic lenses, swirling lighting schemes — an entire gamut of visual distortions that owed much to then-new movements like Op Art and kinetic art. Even the soundtrack was manipulated via editing and psycho-acoustic music techniques to reflect the hero’s fraying mental state.
The results are like nothing you’ve seen before: Clouzot seemed to be reinventing the medium itself. During pre-production, a group of Hollywood studio executives turned up, looked at the tests, and gave the director unlimited financial backing, and that freedom may have ultimately seized his creative clutch. When the time came to actually shoot “Inferno,’’ Clouzot overloaded the production with three separate camera teams and obsessively reshot the same scenes over and over until Reggiani quit and the crew mutinied.
Bromberg masterfully orchestrates the remnants, leading us through the dazzling test footage and reconstructing the surviving filmed sequences as best he can. Because no dialogue tracks exist, he recorded new ones with modern-day actors Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, additionally filming them in surprisingly gripping stage-readings of scenes from “Inferno.’’ He calls upon the aging crew members — including renowned filmmaker Costa-Gavras (“Z’’), who served as first assistant director — to recall their excitement and disillusionment. “Does he really want to finish this film?’’ one remembers thinking.
Apparently not, and the reasons remain unclear. Bromberg speculates that Clouzot might have had a fixation on the 26-year-old Schneider — which you can understand, since she’s almost unbearably erotic here — and he implies that “Inferno’’ may have come so close to the director’s own psychological traumas that it effectively paralyzed him. Again, the comparison seems apt: If “Vertigo’’ let Hitch successfully confront his demons, “Inferno’’ shows Clouzot utterly unmanned by them.
Thirty years later, director Claude Chabrol (who passed away this week) would take Clouzot’s script and finally film “Inferno,’’ minus the radical visual effects. It’s a decent Chabrol movie, but it’s nothing like the spectacular broken bones that Bromberg has reassembled here.