Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Movie Review: Henri Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno *** ½
Directed By:
Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea.

Henri Georges Clouzot was the director of some cinema’s greatest thrillers – Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear remain two of the best the genre has ever produced. By the early 1960s however, the French New Wave had taken cinema by storm, and the directors associated with it were very opinionated – and they didn’t much care for Clouzot’s films. They were too controlled, didn’t feature the free flowing improvisational style they preferred (strangely, many of these directors loved Hitchcock, even though his style was much closer to Clouzot’s then theirs). It seemed like cinema was leaving Clouzot behind.

But Clouzot decided he didn’t want to go quietly. Heavily inspired by Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 , he decided to make a new kind of thriller – an experimental film almost about a man who believes his wife is cheating on him with just about everyone in their small town. He gets these visions of her that break through the black and white world they live in, and come through in psychedelic colors. Clouzot’s spent months working on the massive screenplay, and months working with a collection of films artists in order to devise the effects he wanted for his film. He cast one of the biggest stars in French cinema at the time – the gorgeous Romy Schneider – as the young wife, and an actor he worked with before Serge Reggiani, as her husband. He found the perfect location to shoot in – and didn’t care that he would only have a month before they drained the lake and made shooting there impossible. He hired not just one, but three different crews, the theory being that he could shoot continuously, as when one crew was setting up, he can work with one of the others. He got backing from Hollywood, and could do pretty much whatever he wanted. The film was called Inferno.

But we never did get to see Clouzot’s grand vision. The film remained unfinished – barely started really. Years later, Claude Chabrol (one of the French New Wave directors, yet not one of the ones favored among the group) would make a movie out of Clouzot’s script, but the man himself never got to finish his grand vision. Filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea met with Clouzot’s widow, who showed them all the cans of films that he had gone through in trying to make his movie. Although they are devoid of sound, they show us a movie that could have turned out a masterpiece – or could have been one of the biggest failures in screen history. We’ll never know for sure.

That Clouzot never got to finish his film is pretty much entirely his own fault. He was demanding – a perfectionist, who wasn’t afraid to scream at everyone on set. Romy Schneider would scream back at him, and their fights soon took on a life of their own. Reggiani on the other hand, would always remain quiet – but it took his toll on him, and he left the production – either because of a serious illness, or because he faked one to get out – no one really knows. Clouzot failed to find a replacement for him, but kept right on shooting on that lake – as the deadline they had rapidly drew near. Clouzot’s seemingly great idea of having three camera crews failed miserably, because he was such a perfectionist, he refused to leave the first crew even while they were setting up, and the other crews were ready to go. And then, perhaps mercifully, Clouzot himself had a heart attack, and production was shut down for good. He would direct a final film later in the 1960s, but Inferno remained a lost film to him.

The fascinating thing about the documentary is the footage that it shows us. It really does appear to be the work on a man who is experimenting – trying to push the envelope. Yet what is unclear is whether Clouzot had any real idea on how it would all come together. Was he simply experimenting to try and prove that he was still a vital and original filmmaker, or did all of his madness have some sort of method to it? Sadly we’ll never know. But the footage itself is fascinating – particularly all the scenes shot of Schneider as part of her husband’s deranged fantasy sequences. She is one of the most beautiful women ever, and Clouzot shoots her is a way that is highly sexualized, and yet somewhat perverse (the fact that they were planning on doing things with the color, meaning that she was often covered in gray makeup, and other strange colors adds to this effect).

Making of documentaries have become commonplace on DVDs in the past decade or so. Most are self serving, and act mainly as ads for the films themselves – you don’t really learn all that much from them. But there have been great making of documentaries in the past as well – Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog’s obsessive quest to film Fitzcaraldo and Hearts of Darkness about Francis Ford Coppola going mad in the jungle making Apocalypse Now. You can add Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno to that list. It also resembles Lost in La Mancha, a film about Terry Gilliam failed quest to make his Don Quixote film. We will never know exactly what film Henri-Georges Clouzot would have made had been able to finish Inferno – and not matter if it was a masterpiece of a stunning failure, I think cinema culture is poorer because of it.

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