Henri-Georges Clouzot with Romy Schneider on the set of L'Enfer
Henri-Georges Clouzot had endured dismissal from the German film industry for his Jewish associations, dismissal from the French film industry for his Nazi associations, and a bout of tuberculosis between. Upon resuming filmmaking in 1947 he directed some of the greatest French films of the postwar era, such as The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. The latter was adapted from Boileau-Narcejac’s novel, a property hotly desired by Alfred Hitchcock, who would come to greatly admire Clouzot’s realization.
The Clouzot-Hitchcock connection is curious. Both specialized in nerve-rattling thrillers permeated with nastiness and mental instability. Both were exacting in their craft, famed for their meticulous storyboards, which were followed with such precision that Hitchcock had suggested only half-jokingly that he needn’t show up on set. But the influential critics who would soon become France’s leading filmmakers ostracized Clouzot as resolutely as they revered Hitchcock, and by the end of the ’50s Clouzot might have felt his own relevance slipping away under the force of the New Wave. He sought to refurbish his art, was immensely taken with the formal and erotic innovations in Fellini’s 8 1/2, and set out to create a film that would plumb his own anxieties. L’Enfer would demolish Clouzot’s reputation as an antique. It would be a story of sexual obsession, a radically subjective descent into the debilitating jealousy felt by a less-than-attractive older provincial hotel manager (Serge Reggiani) toward his luscious younger wife (Romy Schneider). But it fell into the familiar trap: too much money, too much ego, and a virtual absence of anyone who might challenge the director’s authority. L’Enfer was never completed, though a tremendous amount of material was shot, not enough for a reconstruction, but more than enough to create a documentary about the project’s development and catastrophic collapse.
Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot uses interviews with Clouzot’s associates and collaborators and workshop performances of scenes never filmed to provide context and flesh out Clouzot’s narrative respectively. Yet nothing in this making-of-a-movie-never-made is half as compelling as watching Clouzot’s archival footage set against Gilbert Amy’s alternately brooding and abstract acoustic-electro score. Clouzot dug out everything save the kitchen sink to assemble a stockade of poppy, kaleidoscopic images, grotesque distortions, colour manipulations, and cock-teasing shots of Schneider, scantily clad or even naked, water skiing or suggestively smoking cigarettes. One image shows her tied to train tracks, breasts heaving in fear, as a charging locomotive approaches. Whether this material could have amounted to more than an assembly of fascinating, arousing and well made, if dated, imagery is difficult to determine, but as the promise of something lost it’s utterly seductive.
L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot is otherwise sturdy but pedestrian, something we can be grateful for having even if it isn’t exactly great in itself. Even on the level of providing pertinent historical facts it’s a little light, with an abrupt ending that gives little sense of the production’s aftermath, and no mention whatsoever of the 1994 Claude Chabrol film made from Clouzot’s script. There certainly isn’t any insight into what might have saved L’Enfer, even of the most fanciful sort. My dream version of the film? A complete re-shoot in which Reggiani is replaced by Clouzot himself, puffing away on his pipe, trapped in the sun-soaked erotic nightmare he himself created.