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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (DVD Review)

6 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Flicker Alley
$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo pack
Not rated.

We live in an era when nearly every film classic of note comes equipped with a “look-back” featurette or more in its DVD or Blu-ray bonus section. Yet every once in a while, a documentary about the movie industry qualifies as a standout or even an event, though usually, they’re about movies that actually got made.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is definitely special for sure, even if one can make the argument that it has a couple unfair advantages going in — the first of which is several sights of Romy Schneider wearing two-piece bathing suits (on and off water skis). The second one is its almost foolproof central hook: the story of an important filmmaker who, from all indications, underwent some kind of mysterious crackup while working on what might have ended up being either a cinematic fiasco of major proportions or the movie of his career.

The latter, had it happened, would have been something because Clouzot already had a couple household names in his filmography. In 2008, a guy named William L. Sinclair smooshed together a thousand critic and fanboy polls to come up with a master list of the 1,000 top movies according to the Internet. Inevitably, his combo tally reflects a disproportionate dose of the dweeb/geek factor — you know this when Star Wars finishes just ahead of Citizen Kane, thank you — which only makes it all the more impressive that such an old-schooler as Clouzot could claim two movies that placed in the top 165, even though his output wasn’t particularly prolific. One was the nitro-propelled nail-biter The Wages of Fear, which William Friedkin remade as Sorcerer, to mixed reception. The other was the perennially popular Diabolique (much later, dreadfully Hollywood-ized under the same title) — it less a whodunit than a what’s-going-on-here.

Even so, Clouzot was probably regarded a bit like yesterday’s news when in 1964 he embarked on what was then his first movie in four years — an attempt to show he could play ball with the younger French New Wave turks. To be titled L’Enfer, it was experimental but with enough of a budget to add some production polish. Serge Reggiani, who’d been a star since La Ronde and Casque D’or in the early ‘50s, was cast as a husband going off the deep end over his wife’s perceived infidelity. Romy Schneider, then coming into her own as an international star courted by major directors as well as Hollywood, played his object of despair — a character who at very least had a flirtatious nature. The regular everyday scenes were shot in black-and-white, while Regianni’s imaginings were to be in color. And I mean color: an entire lake had to be rendered blue, for example, which in the pre-digital age meant the actors had to wear strange makeup to serve the overall photographic effect.

Clouzot had a rep for being tough on actors but also one for being extremely organized. This is why the director’s plural crews here — yes, he had more than one, and they all spent a lot of time waiting around — couldn’t figure out why he was so indecisive shooting this picture. Or why he kept shooting certain scenes over and over again in an elusive search for … well, something. Valuable time began to slip away (there was actually a time limit on use of the lake), and so did the production money that Columbia Pictures had advanced after getting excited by the rushes.

And yes, they are still exciting to see. All that exists of the film, for which the plug eventually got pulled, were the cans of raw footage in possession of Clouzot’s widow, who until this documentary rebuffed attempts by others to see it or show it. From the evidence, it’s inconclusive whether or not the filmmaker could have molded it into a cohesive whole — but as pure images go, the potential here seriously dwarfs anything shown widely in theaters this year with the exception of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

A lot of people who worked on L’enfer are still around, and filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea found them. There’s a spoiler aspect working here, and I don’t want to divulge too much — but it’s fair to say that Reggiani eventually blew a few gaskets over the director’s behavior, which was followed by a health issue that ended the picture and all but ended Clouzot’s career. Claude Chabrol later directed the script as his own L’enfer, which I own but have never seen (some people like it, so I’d better hop to).

In the bonus section, affable Bromberg spins an incredible anecdote involving Clouzot’s widow that illustrates just how close this documentary came to not being made as well. (It’s almost chilling.) The other thing I kept thinking about is that just before entering this hothouse, Schneider had starred in the Jack Lemmon farce Good Neighbor Sam. That employment combo must have been good for a real case of whiplash.

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