Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot | France | 2009 | Directed by Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea

Logline: A documentary about the making of an ill-fated feature by a legendary French director and starring a legendary Austrian actress.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot had an illustrious career, with two brilliant movies in particular; The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. In 1964 he began work on what promised to be his most adventurous and profound piece, Inferno, a study of jealousy and madness. It was a big budget affair and was to utilize a plethora of wildly inventive camera and photographic techniques in order to capture the internal machinations of the lead male character; his psychological breakdown and descent into paranoid, irrational behaviour as he becomes convinced his gorgeous young wife is cheating on him.

Serge Reggiani was cast as suspicious Marcel the husband and Romy Schneider was cast as his carefree wife Odette. Jean-Claude Bercq was cast as Martineau, the handsome temptation, while Dany Carrel was cast as the sly fox flaunting herself in between. After weeks of test-shoots and experimentation with lens and gels and projections and all manner of cinema tricks principal photography got under way on location at a stunning hotel riverside resort with nearby aqueduct and railway line.

Clouzot, being the meticulous perfectionist that he was, had painstakingly storyboarded the entire movie, not an entirely unusual process in the mid-60s, but Clouzot made sure his camera compositions matched the storyboards precisely. He employed three different camera crews, but was reluctant to leave one set-up to go to another in case the one he left wasn’t perfectly realised. Quickly the production got behind schedule. Reggiani began to have clashes with the director, Clouzot would shout back. One simple shot would take a whole day to shoot. Clouzot would then insist on re-shooting.

185 cans of film later and Reggiani walked off the production claiming illness, but in reality it was despair and frustration, and Clouzot had replaced him with Jean-Louis Tritignant (although he didn’t even screen test). Shortly later Clouzot suffered a heart attack. That was the end of Inferno. Clouzot only made one other feature before dying in 1977. His wife held the archived rolls of film captive finally disclosing them to the public in 2005.

This superb and fascinating documentary-cum-reconstruction features several key players from the original production talking candidly about the experience of working on the movie. Also two contemporary actors, Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin read from the original script, to extrapolate from the existing original scenes which were shot, but without sound. It’s a crying shame Romy Schneider wasn’t able to offer her own thoughts (she died tragically in 1982 aged 44), as the documentary uses her seemingly co-operative presence (despite her reputation as a prima donna) from the movie as a focus point. Such a radiant, exquisite beauty she was, in a way this doco is a beautiful tribute - a paean - to her.

Who knows how well Inferno would have turned out, but certainly the extravagant, expressionistic, prismatic use of cinema techniques including the juxtaposition of black and white for the main story and colour reversal for the sequences depicting Marcel’s hallucinatory madness would have ensured the movie a firm place in cult classic history. The colour footage, in particular shots of Romy bathing, the turquoise water against her flawless tan skin just looked sublime. That fact that the movie was never finished makes it all the more tantalizing.

Clouzot’s widow sold the rights to Inferno to another famous French director, Claude Chabrol in 1992 and two years later he made his own version of the movie starring Emmanuel Beart and Francois Cluzet. I must check it out as I admire Beart’s work, and I’m curious as to how provocative Chabrol’s version is considering how provocative Clouzot’s was going to be, in terms of raw sensuality and uncompromising narrative structure.