Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot) (2009)

Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot) first published by Film4

Synopsis: Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s film is all at once a partial reconstruction of Henri-George Clouzot’s unfinished masterpiece, and a documentary on its tragic unmaking.

Review: It begins, as it ends, with a breakdown.

In 2005, film restoration specialist Serge Bromberg happens to get stuck for two hours in a broken elevator with Inès Clouzot. To pass the time, they discuss the various classics that Inès’ late husband Henri-Georges had made (including Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear and Diabolique), and then the widow tells Bromberg about a film that the director was never able to finish – Inferno. Born from Clouzot’s personal experience of mental breakdown, this was to have been a drama about the increasingly pathological jealousy harboured by a provincial hotelier (Serge Reggiani) for his young bride (Romy Schneider), told in a bold new cinematic language that would immerse viewers into protagonist Marcel’s neurotic, anxiety-filled and highly unreliable perspective.

Despite an unlimited budget, a crew of ‘Hollywoodian’ proportions, and meticulous preparations, the shoot became mired in Clouzot’s unhinged perfectionism. By the third torturous week of shooting, severe personality clashes drove leading man Reggiani to storm off the set (never to return), and shortly afterwards, Clouzot suffered a heart attack, leaving the project in ruins. All that remained of the ambitious production were 185 cans of audition tapes, film tests and outdoor sequences, unopened and unseen since 1964. Fortunately Bromberg was invited to cast his eye over this soundtrack-free treasure trove, and the result is Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot) – part making-of documentary, part painstaking reconstruction, part elegy for a film that never was, and part portrait of an artist tragically incapable of seeing his madness through to its end.

Following Clouzot’s screenplay, notes and detailed storyboards, Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea present the existing black-and-white exterior sequences from Inferno in their proper order, filling in the silence with Jean-Guy Véran’s subtle sound design and Bruno Alexiu’s jazz-concrète score, and getting actors Jacques Gamblin and Bérénice Bejo to reenact Reggiani and Schneider’s crucial dialogue scenes in a plain studio space. Most striking of all, though, are the snatches of Marcel’s deluded point of view, inspired by the voguish Op Art and kinetic art movements, and shot in full (although often luridly unnatural) colour filtered through a range of distorting lenses and in-camera optical effects.

These scenes, reconstituted mostly from Clouzot’s extensive pre-production test films, offer a tantalising glimpse into what would clearly have been one of the most visually disorienting films of its, or indeed any, decade – a hallucinatory kaleidoscope of warped faces, multiplied forms, swirling shadows, morbid timelapses and abstract eroticism. For these too, there is no remaining soundtrack, but Bromberg’s research did lead him to unearth a half-hour reel of test recordings made by the original film’s composer Gilbert Amy and sound engineer Jean-Louis Ducarme, revealing an unnerving cacophony of deformed phrasal repetitions (some voiced by Clouzot himself). All in all, these reconstructions are a heady palimpsest of Clouzot’s intentions and achievements, and there is enough here to persuade the cinephile that Inferno, though largely unmade, still merits being regarded as a classic of subjective cinema, anticipating the works of Roman Polanski, David Lynch and Lodge Kerrigan.

The story of the film’s wildly experimental pre-production and troubled production proves equally gripping. Told in a mix of Bromberg’s matter-of-fact narration, archival footage, and new interviews with original cast and crew members (including then assistant director Costa Gavras, assistant director intern Bernard Stora, and assistant DP William Lubtchansky), it is a tale of daring, doubt and descent that seems in certain respects to mirror the narrative of Inferno itself.

Like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1997), this is a documentary that transcends its status as a production footnote or behind-the-scenes DVD extra to become a feature film in its own right – and, like Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha (2002), it is in a parasitic relationship with a film that was destined never in fact to be completed, and so gives shape to that most shapeless and intangible of things, artistic failure. We shall never know exactly why, when his talents and expression were granted free rein by impressed Hollywood backers, the usually disciplined Clouzot stalled – but stall he did, just like an elevator, bringing his claustrophobic study of madness to a sudden and juddering stop before it could complete its ascent to the very pinnacle of cinema.

In a nutshell: This ‘unmaking-of’ documentary is as mesmerisingly compelling as its subject might have been, and adds some splendidly disorienting reels to the cinema of anxiety. Unmissable – even if we all missed the film at its centre.

© Anton Bitel