Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno
Cross-posted at Lincoln Center’s film blog
There’s no shortage of reasons why studio films end up on the cutting room floor: funders back out without warning, directors run into difficulty securing rights, footage gets lost or stolen, and in more exciting instances, directors simply fall victim to the expanding scope of their own visions. Orson Welles spent thirty years obsessively shooting scenes for what he considered the culmination of his life’s work, an adaptation of Don Quixote, only to leave behind 300,000 feet of reel and an unfinished product. Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, said to herald a major breakthrough in his cinematic style, was rejected because the protagonist was “too ugly”; and Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon was shut down in production due to staggering studio costs. However, as a number of recent documentaries indicate, for all the films that are abandoned, not all of cinema’s most ambitious discarded projects are entirely forgotten.
The most recent film to receive preservationists’ attention is L’Enfer, the unfinished masterpiece by the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. In L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Inferno of Henri-Georges Clouzot) documentarians Serge Blomberg and Ruxandra Medrea retrace the project’s collapse – Bromberg came up with the idea after being trapped with Clouzot’s widow in an elevator – overlaying the film’s plot with the story of its production, and adapting the film’s central theme of obsession as a means of understanding Clouzot’s tyrannical directorial style. The result is a documentary that presents itself quietly, if not too much so – to their credit, Bromberg and Medrea allow Clouzot’s vision to stand by itself, but this comes at the expense of critical background about the director’s tormented history and how it may have doomed his most ambitious work.
Nicknamed the “French Hitchcock” for his morbid sensibility, Clouzot came to prominence in the early 1940s by directing thrillers that circumscribed the themes that would later come to obsess him in Inferno: paranoia, jealousy, and the peripheries of sanity and reality. In 1943, he burst onto the European film scene with Le Corbeau, the film that both established and forever tarnished his career when critics condemned it of being anti-French. While Blomberg and Medrea resist delving too deeply into Clouzot’s history, the arc of his creative life often mirrored his personal one: in the years following the Liberation, Clouzot was temporarily banished from filmmaking amid accusations of collaborating with the Germans, and by the 1930s, had been hospitalized for severe depression.
In the summer of 1964, after directing the massively successful La Vérité with Brigitte Bardot, Clouzot set to work on the film that “was to be his masterpiece, L’Enfer, a revolutionary experiment in form inspired in part by Fellini’s 8½.” The plan was to shoot over a four-week period at the artificial Garabit Lake in south-central France (more on this later), followed by 14 weeks in the studio. Armed with an unlimited budget and one of the top young actresses in France – the stunning Romy Schneider – Clouzot spent three weeks obsessively shooting and re-shooting the test shots that would eventually provide the sole remaining documentation of the film.
L’Enfer is shot from the perspective of actor Serge Reggiani – who was selected for having a head “like a chestnut” – and chronicles Reggiani’s increasingly deranged fantasies as he becomes convinced that his wife, played by Schneider, is having an affair with a local mechanic. The daytime scenes, which are shot in black and white, are carefully crafted to offset the rapturous, hallucinatory quality of Reggiani’s visions, which receive full color treatment, and are an early example of Clouzot’s experimentation with kinetic art. While every shot in the film reflects Clouzot’s meticulous artistry, the test shots are nothing short of astonishing. Liberated from the confines of a budget, Clouzot enlisted the top visual and sonic artists of the day to develop a cinematic world characterized by a gorgeous aesthetic schizophrenia, splitting the paranoid imaginings of a madman against the lush landscapes of provincial France. Special effects are used to a degree rarely seen in contemporary cinema, and at one point, Clouzot paints all of his actors green in order to invert the camera’s colors and tinge the lake a crimson red.
Ultimately, while these shots are precisely what’s so alluring about the film, they’re also partially to blame for its incompletion. After three weeks of filming, Clouzot’s fanaticism reached a fevered pitch, driving producers to climb out of bathroom windows rather than be forced to spend every waking hour tending to the director’s whims. Citing health reasons, Reggiani left several weeks into the shoot, and with only days to go before the artificial lake was to be drained, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and production was called off. In the end, all that was left of the endeavor was 13 hours of film fated to spend the next forty years locked away. On Criterion’s website, Michael Koresky wonders what would have happened had the film ever been completed. It’s impossible to know, but at the very least, we should consider ourselves lucky that what did come of Inferno made it off of the floor and onto the screen, in one way or another.