2009 CIFF: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, 2009)

Directors: Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Film history is littered with the carcasses of unfinished films, scraps of film tests, legendary ideas that never got off the ground. Among them, the aborted Inferno, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s attempt at trying to make a film in the style of the Nouvelle Vague, is one of the more notorious. Clouzot, scorned by the auteurs of the French New Wave for his tightly scripted and controlled film style, immersed himself in the pop/op culture of the 1960s. He engaged France’s biggest star at the time, Romy Schneider, to play Odette, the lead character, and Hollywood backers gave him a blank check to create this internalized tale of jealousy. He compiled highly detailed storyboards and started an elaborate series of optical tests in preparation for this half color/half black-and-white film. He began principal shooting in the resort town of Garabit in 1964. The film floundered, and Clouzot abandoned it after he suffered a heart attack during shooting.

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Clouzot’s widow Inès turned 185 cans (approximately 13 hours) of film over to directors Bromberg and Medrea in hopes that Inferno might be able to see the light of day in some way. The contents largely comprised the tests Clouzot’s camera crews did to achieve various effects that would suggest the jealous insanity of Odette’s husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani, chosen by Clouzot over the strenuous objection of others because he had a head shaped like “a carved chestnut.”) The documentarians related the events surrounding the film from start to finish and sampled rather more generously than necessary from these experiments, as well as whatever completed footage was available and archival interviews with Clouzot. They also conducted their own interviews with a number of people who worked on the shoot, including then-production assistant Costa Gavras, to gain more insight into the methods and problems that killed Inferno. Their film is an interesting look at how a film is made, as well as unmade.

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The preproduction optical, makeup, and costume tests are interesting to watch, as we see the odd and unflattering costumes Schneider modeled for the camera. Catherine Allégret, who played Odette’s flirtatious friend, fared much better in the wardrobe department. Many tests were made to create the color effects Clouzot wanted in an era before such things were easy to achieve. For example, in one scene, Odette is supposed to waterski and then drop into the water. Clouzot wanted the water to turn blood red. The camera effects and the proper makeup and costume colors would need to work like green-screen technology to achieve this and other objectives. There are many tests showing the actors with dark blue lips. It’s hard to imagine that Clouzot wanted this effect. It’s even harder to imagine that he wanted the weird scenes of Schneider playing with a Slinky or bouncing around with glitter all over her face. One cameraman interviewed for the documentary specialized in “optical coitus,” and we are treated to his in/out, in/out camera movements.

Clouzot planned four weeks of location shooting at Garabit that would involve the small village; the famous Garabit viaduct, a train trestle and walkway designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame; and the artificial Garabit Lake. The lake was due to be drained at the end of that time, so Clouzot was definitely on a fixed clock. He had his three camera crews ready each day to set up and shoot; the only problem was that Clouzot would stay all day with the first crew shooting a scene over and over and never give instructions to the other two crews about work they could do. Clouzot was wasting a lot of talent, including Claude Renoir and Rudolph Maté, mere months from death, who shot Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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Worse, Clouzot pushed his cast and crew to the breaking point. A chronic insomniac, he would wake those staying in the central hotel whenever he got an idea. He and Reggiani had a battle of wills underway. In one test, we see a young man running toward the camera. On location, Clouzot forced Reggiani to run nearly 10 miles a day as he shot and reshot a sequence of Marcel following the boat containing Odette and Martineau (Jean-Claude Bercq), her imagined lover, by land and over the viaduct. This relationship strained to breaking when Reggiani walked off the set due to a supposed illness; was it Maltese fever or was it “I quit?” An attempt to replace him with Jean-Louis Tritignant ended quickly, and then the fateful heart attack ended the film entirely.

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Why did Clouzot fail to finish Inferno? I don’t think you have to be Fellini to figure it out. When his first wife died, he went into a “real depression,” as he says in an archival interview. There may have been lingering effects from this medical catastrophe that might have hampered his decision-making processes. So, too, was he trying to answer his critics. His rather caustic retort that he “improvised on paper” shows that melding the new style with his meticulousness would be a difficult proposition. In fact, I think it was an impossible one, one that gave him the equivalent of writer’s block. He didn’t know how to make “new” films. He knew how to make his films and just couldn’t learn new lessons this late in his career.

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But Bromberg and Medrea seemed to want to actually get inside his head to answer this lingering question. Clouzot’s interest in obsessive jealousy might have been engendered by his obsession with the beautiful and seductive Schneider, but clearly, Odette must be seen as the object of obsession for the lunatic Marcel. I thought the directors overdid this aspect of Clouzot’s method, while ignoring the more obvious causes of his creative paralysis. They end their film with a long series of test shots showing Schneider doing various things under garish, otherworldly makeup and lighting. They seem to have fallen for Romy Schneider themselves.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    13th/10/2009 to 7:03 pm

    I’m hoping to see this after reading about it here and elsewhere. One of my film going regrets was passing on the opportunity to see Clouzot’s last film, The Prisoner, when it played theatrically. While the Austrian born Romy Schneider did star in several French films, she seemed to rotate between French, Italian, German language, and English language films. I bought a 4 DVD set of her movies when I was in Berlin primarily for two films unavailable in the U.S.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    13th/10/2009 to 7:04 pm

    Darn, here’s the link: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002769/

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/10/2009 to 8:25 pm

    Peter, the film emphasized that Schneider was the biggest star in France. She did have an international career, of course, as you so rightly point out.

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