Director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1950s’ run, including The Wages of Fear and Les diaboliques, made him an international name. Inferno, his still-born production of 1964, nearly ended him.
Film preservationist Serge Bromberg tries to summon the phantom of Clouzot’s incomplete film to determine the cause of death. He incants while picking through the remains: hours of out-of-storage negatives, inner monologue recordings, interviews with cast and crew, and new readings from the script.
Clouzot’s Inferno concerns the knife twist of jealousy destroying a couple, the story divided between reality and fevered imagination. For the tweaked husband, Marcel, keeper of a lakeside resort, Clouzot cast Serge Regianni, then 42, with “a head like a carved walnut.” Romy Schneider—16 years his junior, at peak perfection—plays his wife, Odette. In costume test footage, she is casual screen presence defined.
Clouzot’s previous film, La vérité, had won a 1960 Academy Award, but when Inferno was gearing up, out-with-the-old critics started chipping away at his French reputation. (A collaborator of the premeditative, storyboard-reliant Clouzot recalls his response to the New Waver’s emphasis on improvisation: “I improvise on paper.”)
To involve viewers in his protagonists’ delusions, Clouzot wanted a new vocabulary for interior torment (no coincidence that his title cites Strindberg). Hip to the gallery world—Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, a collaboration with the painter, humiliates the current run of artist-bio puff pieces—he was inspired by kinetic art, running off scads of experimental screen tests, dry runs for Marcel’s hallucinations. Bromberg draws heavily from these absurd, quizzical, and often erotic images, Clouzot’s first color filmmaking. (William Lubtchansky recalls becoming a “specialist on optical coitus” as a young camera assistant.) There are caressing, crawling shadows, prismatic distortions, a kaleidoscope of staring retinas. The train that, passing on a dramatic overhead trestle, triggers Marcel’s fits, is imagined bearing down on a stripped Schneider, its smoke stack inhaling. To create a blood-red lake, tests were made by inverting film colors, rendering actors with hypothermic blue lips, everything else in just-off postcard tints.
Obscurity abets reputation. Now accessible, some of Clouzot’s breakthroughs seem no more visionary than the light-show psychedelia commonplace after 1967’s The Trip. But Bromberg has also assembled some of Clouzot’s filmed dramatic sequences, showing his lubricious camerawork in tantalizingly good form. One set piece—Marcel, on the shore, pursuing a waterskiing Odette—could be “The French Hitchcock” responding to the bold spatial leaps around The Birds‘s Bodega Bay.
The classic ill-starred production tale features a noble creator brought to earth by myopic moneymen. Bromberg’s investigation tells a more troubling story, without the release of righteous indignation, in which the artist is unfettered—and fails all the same. Doubting that Clouzot’s backers ever said “unlimited budget,” this was still his film to lose, and Bromberg reckons it lost before Clouzot’s heart attack officially shut things down. Bromberg reveals a self-undone Clouzot, abandoned by Regianni after on-set bullying, his massive crew (three cameramen!) lingering, undirected, and his schedule blown. The director was undermined in part by the same instabilities that inspired him (including his chronic insomnia). Bromberg’s key image: Clouzot, starring in one of his own funhouse screen tests, a brooding, heavy-browed figure, harried by superimpositions.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno plays at the New York Film Festival October 4.