Inferno / Henri-George Clouzot’s Inferno
Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea
Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 21 September 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
One of the ostensible perqs of attending a public film festival like Toronto is the opportunity to see actors and directors talk about their work—sort of an in-person DVD commentary track, and one in which you can potentially ask questions yourself. As a critic attending designated press screenings, I don’t get to take much advantage of that, for better and worse. Sometimes for much, much better. One of the few public screenings I caught this year, for example, was for the documentary Inferno, which had premiered to great fanfare at Cannes back in May—and, sure enough, the film’s director, Serge Bromberg, showed up to make a few introductory remarks. If the people who invested money in this picture have any sense whatsoever, they will muzzle the guy in future, because his charming, hilarious prologue very nearly killed the movie dead.
I guess one could argue that that was apropos, since Inferno concerns a movie that actually was killed dead. Back in 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, the so-called “French Hitchcock” – his most celebrated films include Diabolique and The Wages of Fear – began shooting an experimental quasi-thriller called L’Enfer (literally The Inferno, colloquially Hell), starring Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider. The film’s jealous-lover scenario was fairly basic, by all accounts (though Claude Chabrol wound up directing his own version of the script decades later), but Clouzot was apparently less interested in the story than in appropriating for the screen some of the crazy kaleidoscopic imagery that he’d recently seen in various art galleries. Alas, the film was shut down after just three weeks of shooting, never to be completed; until now, the extant footage had been moldering in its original cans, unseen by the world for more than 40 years.
Prior to the Toronto screening, the personable and enthusiastic Bromberg told the audience, in fascinating detail, the story of how he obtained this celluloid mini-Grail, ending the anecdote on a cliffhanger set in an elevator and promising that the movie would provide the climax. Sadly, his introduction was both more entertaining and more informative than the film itself, which not only omits the tale of Bromberg wheedling Clouzot’s widow (the elevator bit is mentioned only in passing), but also never really provides a coherent or compelling account of why the making of L’Enfer was such, well, l’enfer for everybody involved. We learn that Clouzot was an indecisive martinet whose endless delays and abrupt manner prompted Reggiani to walk off the picture, but that’s hardly earth-shattering enough for a five-minute segment on Entertainment Tonight, much less the skeleton of a feature-length documentary.
Thankfully, the long-unseen L’Enfer footage delivers. Shots from the narrative proper, in stark black-and-white, look typically gorgeous—albeit not as gorgeous as the 26-year-old Schneider, a middling actress who was nonetheless a stunning camera study, perhaps nowhere more so than in this unfinished project. But the primary reason to see Inferno (and the only real justification for its existence, frankly) is Clouzot’s amazing experiments with superimposed imagery, which look almost proto-Greenaway in their hallucinatory visual fervor. As Bromberg noted (though again, only in the Q&A, not in the damn film!), these remarkable shots, which go on for up to a minute or even longer, would likely have been edited to a few seconds in the movie itself, and hence come across here as more avant-garde than Clouzot may have intended. But I could happily have spent 90 minutes watching tiny pinpricks of light dancing in carnival-midway circles around Romy Schneider’s irises.
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