Arrow Video: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009) - Reviewed

The French cinematic equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock in terms of suspense and audiovisual innovation from a technical standpoint, Henri-Georges Clouzot of Diabolique, Quai des Orfèvres and the Palme d’Or winning The Wages of Fear (later remade as Sorcerer by William Friedkin) was considered a master of the psychological thriller genre.  Pushing the envelope in terms of violence and sexual content in an effort to dig deep into the fragile psyches of his protagonists, Clouzot garnered the reputation for being particularly hard on his cast and crew, unscrupulous in his methodology, embittered, irate and nihilistic in terms of his worldview expressed so uncompromisingly onscreen.  An intensely difficult and likely tormented filmmaking genius, many complained his work was too planned out when compared to the spontaneity of the French New Wave and that his cantankerous personality led some to believe his films were public self-examinations.

Nevertheless, Clouzot’s stature in the elite annals of contemporary French cinema continued to rise.  Having recently garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film with his 1960 courtroom drama The Truth, Clouzot set his sights on what was shaping up to be his most ambitious project yet: Inferno.  The story of a married couple, Marcel (Serge Reggiani) and Odette (Romy Schneider), the film was a psychological horror story exploring the man’s extreme jealousy during their summer vacation on a lake retreat, going well past paranoid fantasy into hallucinatory psychosis.  Experimental in form yet grand in scope, Clouzot sought with Inferno to largely shoot the picture in black-and-white with the visual style drifting towards kaleidoscopic colors, strobe flashing and experimental imagery not seen since the early pioneers of the avant-garde in an effort to express Marcel’s increasing anxieties.  On paper, it could forever change the language of narrative cinema and burst open the possibilities of experimental filmmaking.  On set, the film fell apart after only three weeks of shooting.  What went wrong?

Attempting to piece together the mystery behind one of world cinema’s most legendarily abandoned film projects, documentary filmmaker Serge Bromberg stumbled upon a movie lover’s goldmine when he found himself trapped in an elevator in a high-rise apartment that also happened to carry the famed director’s widow, Inès de Gonzalez.  After talking at length, Bromberg convinced Gonzalez to give him access to some 150 cans of footage recently discovered in French film archives containing dailies belonging to the ill-fated Inferno and thus began, with the help of Ruxandra Medrea, the gradual assembly of one of the most compelling and utterly fascinating documentaries chronicling an abandoned film probably ever made.  Including interviews with surviving cast and crew members coupled with reconstructed as well as reenacted scenes, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno as a documentary attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding what could have been the director’s greatest film and how the fine line between genius and madness was crossed on the set of his film.

Looking at the dailies, experimenting with color echoing the work of Mario Bava and predating the work of Dario Argento, it goes without saying the kinetic test visual effects shots and technical innovation behind them was absolutely breathtaking.  No doubt Clouzot approached filmmaking less as an auteur than as a scientist in a lab working with cinematic test tubes and had he seen his vision through to the end, he would have made a really great film for the ages.  Sadly however, that quickly unraveled when American backers saw the test footage being conducted and gave Clouzot unlimited financial resources, expanding both the scope of the picture while also going directly to the filmmaker’s hubris. 

Set against a breakneck deadline to shoot all of the lake scenes before it was to be drained dry for a hydroelectric generating project, Clouzot’s productivity screeched to a halt as he reshot and rewrote scenes seemingly over and over again.  Being a type A insomniac who could never sleep on an idea that sprung to mind, Clouzot kept his cast and crew awake 24/7 beyond the point of exhaustion and fatigue, making being part of the film production, much like the title itself, a veritable Hell.  Things inevitably worsened when repeated clashing with his leading man, Serge Reggiani, led to the actor abruptly exiting production to never return.  Finally it all came crashing down when Clouzot, having pushed himself far beyond the brink of mental and physical health, suffered a heart attack on set and the project was scrapped altogether.  Clouzot would only make one more film in 1968 with La prisonnière before passing in 1977 at the age of 69. 

Ultimately made into a film based upon Clouzot’s screenplay in 1994 by Madame Bovary director Claude Chabrol, Clouzot’s footage shot for Inferno remained unseen for more than half a century with only a few production photos available to give insight into the legendarily nonexistent film.  What’s more, Clouzot’s widow wasn’t about to let the footage go per her husband’s wishes to keep the work under lock and key and the process of finding it and getting her blessing to release it was an ordeal in and of itself.  Though it remains incomplete and lost to time, the footage cut together into the documentary with some unfilmed sequences reenacted based on Clouzot’s screenplay offer an in-depth glimpse into what might have been a truly extraordinary work of audiovisual art.  Though we will never really know as we only have snippets, production notes and testimonies at our disposal, what is hear is astonishing and dares even the most jaded cinephiles to dream!  


- Andrew Kotwicki