It all began in an elevator. Inadvertently stuck between floors in an apartment building, producer-director Serge Bromberg struck up a conversation with the module’s other passenger — who turned out to be the widow of legendary French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. A master of psychological realism, Clouzot held a place apart from both the older ‘tradition of quality” and the younger New Wave directors, with such intense, incisive films as Le Corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfevres (1947), Manon (1949), The Wages of Fear (1953), and Le Diabolique (1955). Fascinated with humanity at its worst, Clouzot strove to dramatize it through exacting methods that some might describe as film direction at its worst. He dealt with every technical aspect of the art with a thoroughness that was nonpareil. He drove his actors into states of total abjection, breaking them down the better to “rebuild” them into the image he had in his mind. As a result he was a figure regarded with both respect and horror. In 1964, however, this master of human darkness met his Waterloo with a project entitled L’Enfer (Inferno). For Clouzot, it literally was Hell.
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Thanks to the worldwide success of La Verite (1960), a courtroom drama in which he wrested an intense and original performance from pouting “sex kitten” Brigitte Bardot, Clouzot had attracted the world’s attention, which is to say, that of Hollywood. Columbia Pictures would back his next project L’Enfer, a drama about the owner of a small resort hotel consumed with suspicion that his beautiful wife was being flagrantly unfaithful to him. The script Clouzot had written was a relatively straightforward affair. Likewise the cast. Veteran actor Serge Reggiani, who had already starred for Clouzot in Manon, would play the hotel owner, and luscious, up-and-coming international star Romy Schneider would play his beautiful wife. The setting would be the Garrabit Hotel — a small but exceptionally chic getaway not far outside of Paris, favored by all manner of celebs including Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, and many members of the cast Clouzot was assembling. A charming place next to a lovely artificial lake, with trains running over the viaduct in the near distance, it seemed like a ready-made set, perfect for a filmmaker obsessed with atmosphere. However, a radically different element entered the picture. The previous year Clouzot had seen — and been bowled over by — Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. The entire movie-making world was talking about this autobiographical fandango that freely mixed dreams, memories and hallucination. Clouzot was convinced he had to make a film to challenge 8½’s preeminence. And so he began to shoot a series of radical “test shots” for L’Enfer.
Mixing color with black and white, these “tests” pictured Schneider with all manner of colored lights playing over her face, cascades of water falling in front of her, shots in which smoke, rather than being exhaled from her lips, reversed course and poured back in. Most suggestive of all were shots of a topless Schneider tied to a railroad track with a train bearing down on her, and one in which Reggiani, hovering over her sleeping form, is unable to touch her because an invisible barrier blocks his way. Reggiani’s hotelier is obsessed with his wife. He watches her every move. He imagines that a pair of handsome lotharios (Jean-Claude Berq and Mario David), always in bathing suits, are having their way with her. And that’s not to mention their sex kitten girlfriend (Dany Carrel). Could she be getting it on with Romy too? The mind boggles. It certainly did for the filmmaker. Clouzot famously suffered from depression and had experienced nervous breakdowns. “I don’t think I’m a pathological case” he says in an interview included in Bromberg’s film. But Clouzot was shooting the same scenes over and over again. This was way beyond “perfectionism.“ He was clearly stuck. Had he forgotten what he was doing and why? Making matters worse was the fact that there was a time limit. The artificial lake was scheduled to be drained for an upgrade and repairs in a few weeks, at which point the company would move to a studio to shoot the interiors. Yet Clouzot kept filming Schneider water-skiing. Worse still he demanded sequence after sequence of Reggiani running. Exhausted and disgusted, the great French star walked off the picture. Briefly Clouzot considered hiring Jean-Louis Trintignant to replace him. That would mean that two weeks shooting would have to be redone. But it never came to that. Continuing to shoot with the actors he had, Clouzot came to grief on the day when he shot a lesbian love scene between Schneider and Carrel. This was to be the last straw for Reggiani’s character, but it was the last straw for Clouzot, who collapsed from a heart attack. The film was shut down immediately. But it wasn’t the end of Clouzot’s career; in 1968 he came back with La Prisonière, a drama about a sado-masochistic relationship that utilized much of the same style of visual experiment used in the uncompleted L’Enfer. But while something of an international success, this Laurent Terzieff-starred drama wasn’t L’Enfer — which brings us back to that trapped elevator.
Clouzot’s widow told Bromberg she had 185 cans of unedited film that no one had ever seen before. Working in collaboration with film editor Ruxana Medrea, Bromberg reconstructed the shards of L’Enfer, combining them with interviews from the surviving participants in the project, into Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno. In addition Bromberg has a pair of actors perform select scenes from the script to demonstrate the dramatic center of what Clouzot had spun into something rich and strange. We hear from the film’s assistant director Costa-Gavras, who had never been involved with so ambitious a project before; Catherine Allegret, who explains how Clouzot was striving to create something “more physical than intellectual; and cameraman William Lubtchansky recounts how Clouzot had set up three separate camera crews to keep the shoot moving at a brisk pace but in the end used only one of them. Columbia executives were so impressed by the hallucinatory test footage Clouzot had shot that they decreed the film had an “unlimited budget.” Yet it all came to naught. L’Enfer is not alone in fascinating films foreshortened by fate or circumstance. In 1929 Gloria Swanson and her backer/paramour Joseph Kennedy pulled the plug on Erich Von Stroheim’s bitter romance Queen Kelly when she discovered her virginal heroine would end up as the Madame of a Congo brothel. In 1937 Josef Von Sternberg’s film of Robert Graves’ I Claudius was brought to a halt when star Merle Oberon was injured in an automobile accident. But the 1965 documentary The Epic That Never Was (which includes generous excerpts from the unfinished epic) reveals that clashes between Sternberg and his star Charles Laughton had doomed the project already. And then there’s Jacques Rivette’s L’Historie de Marie et Julien, originally the third panel of his projected four-part Scenes de la vie parallele. Exhausted from the shooting of two of the ambitious project’s other parts — Duelle and Noroit — Rivette suffered a nervous breakdown three days into shooting. Happily in 2003 he was able to return to the project again, staring from scratch this time. But that’s because Rivette recovered from his breakdown. Clouzot never really did. But we have Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno.
David Ehrenstein is a film critic and writer whose books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.
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