Monday, November 23, 2009

Review - Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot)

So often in cinema, a revered director will be undone by a personal project that spins out of control, a project that becomes an all-consuming and never-ending obsession. For Henri-Georges Clouzot, the great artist behind Quai des Orfèvres, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, it was a film called Inferno, which went into production in 1964, but never made it to the screen. The story behind the film's collapse is entertainingly told in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a slickly produced documentary comprised of interviews with key collaborators and choice cuts from the 185 cans of footage the director left behind. Co-director Serge Bromberg discovered this footage quite by chance, when he found himself trapped in a broken elevator with an elderly woman for company. She turned out to be Inés, Clouzot's widow, and their discussion eventually turned to her late husband's greatest disappointment, the collapse of his much-cherished project.

The tantalising thing about Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is that it shows us enough of the extraordinary film to suggest it may have been a lost masterpiece, while simultaneously suggesting that the project was doomed from the start, being directed by a man who had lost control of his vision. Clouzot had been inspired by Fellini's , and with Inferno, he intended to produce something every bit as groundbreaking, although one suspects he never really had the kind of genius for freewheeling invention that Fellini possessed. His story was essentially a simple one; the tale of a man (Serge Reggiani) who is obsessed with the idea that his flirtatious wife (Romy Schneider) is cheating on him. The film was to be shot in black-and-white, but Clouzot's plan was to interrupt the main narrative with fantasy sequences that expressed Reggiani's fears in vivid colour, and it was in these sequences that the director intended to dazzle his audience.

The most astonishing images in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno emerge from the test footage he shot as he tried to find the perfect visual expression for his hero's jealousy. A number of contemporary artists were hired to lend their expertise as the director fiddled with innovative camera techniques, toyed with his colour palette, and filmed the remarkably game Schneider in scene after scene of psychedelic mania. In one of his most mind-boggling moves, Clouzot decided he wanted the water to be blood-red in a scene set on a lake, but the colour inversion required to achieve this meant the actors needed to be coated in various shades of grey, green and blue. But in all of this experimentation, what was Clouzot searching for? At times, it seemed even he didn't know, and the test shooting went on for months, with little sign of a completed film emerging, and the large budget draining away. Bromberg and his co-director Ruxandra Medrea do try to give us a sense of what the final project may have looked like, with inserts that feature two actors reading Clouzot's script on a bare stage, or edited-together footage with a soundtrack added, but these sequences tend to be the film's weakest. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is at its best when the footage is allowed to speak for itself, particularly when it focuses on Schneider, who positively glows in front of the camera.

A number of crew members offer their own perspective, and their candid recollections give us an idea of the mayhem that the Inferno shoot eventually became. Amusing anecdotes abound, from the insomniac Clouzot waking his crew members at 2am to discuss new ideas, or cinematographer Claude Renoir escaping through a bathroom window to avoid another interminable scouting trips. At one point, Clouzot had three different camera crews working separately, with each crew having no idea what the others were doing. It was chaos, frankly, and when an exhausted and frustrated Reggiani left the shoot, the game was almost up; a fact confirmed by the director's subsequent heart attack, which finally drew a line under the whole escapade. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno ends on a sad, elegiac note, telling us sombrely that the director made one more feature film before his death in 1977; and while he is justifiably remembered as one of the great French filmmakers, he never quite recovered from the experience of so thoroughly losing his way inside his Inferno.