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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

(Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009): The madness on display in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a pastiche assembly of the unfinished 1964 film noir the notoriously perfectionistic director of Quai des Orfevres and Diabolique nearly lost his mind and life in the making, is nothing if not methodical.

Intended by the infamously charm-challenged filmmaker as a semi-experimental riposte to the nouvelle vague punk upstarts who had shelved Clouzot as an example of the kind irrelevant old-school classicism that made the Cahiers driven revolt necessary — a rather outrageously presumptuous claim in retrospect — Inferno was further ignited by Clouzot’s exposure to the expressive outer limits of Fellini’s 8 1/2. While the plot that began simmering in his head was pure noir boilerplate — a middle-aged hotel proprietor is driven delusionally batshit by suspicions of his delectably much-younger wife’s infidelity — it’s execution would be nothing short of a pre-psychedelic mindfuck. In one fell swoop, Clouzot hoped not only to re-claim and re-define his reputation as France’s most accomplished filmmaker, he’d beat the new wave punks at their own cinephiliac game-change.

Inferno was thus intended to seriously blow some minds, but by the evidence suggested in this intermittently astonishing and underwhelmingly conventional doc, the mind most irretrievably detonated was the director’s own. Given carte blanche by the American studio Columbia to act as writer, director and producer — a significantly strange fact on its own, and one of the many the film is conspicuously incurious about — Clouzot made his first certifiably crazy decision by selecting a stunning locale: an artificial lake below an elevated train trestle, perfect if not for the fact the lake was about to be drained and the director was required to hire three separate crews get the movie shot in time. But most of those crew members never worked. Apart from filming star Serge Reggiani running madly around the dam-like wall overlooking the lake below (where Clouzot also managed to shoot the stunning Romy Schneider water-skiing in dangerously sexy slo-mo), Clouzot produced practically nothing but optical tests suggesting his protagonist’s state of advanced erotic delirium. (Meanwhile, after re-shooting that running scene to the point of near heat-stroke, Reggiani simply walked off the set for good.)

It is these tests that comprise Inferno‘s most electrifying imagery as well as evidence of the director’s own state of advancingly transfixed twitterpation. Although many are exercises in pure optical experimentation — screens swimming with eyeballs, split into fragments, or indulging some fascinating pre-Persona feats of synching up profiles and perpendicular faces — most are of the resplendent Schneider (unbelievably game when you think about it) in various states of high pop-art seductiveness: sticking out a blue tongue, peeking out from behind curtains of crimson ribbons, caked in silver snakeskin makeup, smoking in reverse motion, staring from behind a glass wall of cascading water, lying naked in front of an oncoming locomotive, vamping in more colours than there were cameras capable of recording them. (In order to get the effect of a red lake, Clouzot had to have his entire cast painted green.)

Clearly as gone over the girl as his protagonist ever was, Clouzot not only pushed his creative muse further than he (or, arguably, any major commercial filmmaker of his day) had ever gone, he pushed himself to the point of heart attack and the movie itself into oblivion. The plug was eventually pulled on Inferno by Columbia, the lake filled in for a power plant, and Clouzot only completed one other film before dying in 1977. And the fifteen or so hours of trippy screen tests would sit utterly unseen until the day Clouzot’s widow got stuck in an elevator for two hours with co-director (and notorious French cinephiliac geek Bromberg), and the idea for this documentary was hatched.

As irresistibly mind-blowing as so much of the test footage is, the documentary that frames it is a comparatively banal affair, mostly consisting of surviving crew members and collaborators (cinematographer William Lubtchansky, novice production assistant Costa-Gavras, actress Catherine Allégret, etc.) recounting instances of the director’s already well-established mania: the driving of cast members beyond exhaustion, the insomniac summons of crew members in the middle of the night, the idleness of most of the expensively hired alternate crews, and Clouzot’s own apparent obliviousness as to just what, exactly, he was trying to make. (Indeed, if there’s a comparatively unfocused unfinished legendary project out there, it’s the fragments of Welles’ Other Side of the Wind, another project that looks suspiciously like a movie in search of its own subject and form.) And yet, for all the anecdotal evidence provided of Clouzot’s slippery grasp of reality during the making of Inferno, practically nothing is said of his long-standing history as an on-set tyrant, his clinical history as a sanatorium patient in early adulthood, or anything that might provide something by way of context for the act of supreme but strangely inspired self-immolating folly that was his Inferno.

Most dubious of co-director Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s choices, however, are the scenes in which contemporary actors (Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin) read scenes from the script against a completely stripped theatrical backdrop. Not only do the sequences merely emphasize the fact that, whatever it’s charms might ultimately have been, Inferno‘s script likely wasn’t among them, the film could conceivably simply have selected far more effective sequences from the version of the film, featuring Emmanuelle Béart and Francois Cluzet, Claude Chabrol directed from Clouzot’s script in 1994. Au contraire, Chabrol’s film isn’t even mentioned. The opportunity missed here is not only to hear how one of those former new wave punks clearly came around to appreciating Clouzot’s contribution to French cinema, but how one man’s unfinished fever dream became another’s completed movie. Even madness, it seems, eventually finds a form. (Flicker Alley)