Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Unfinished cinematography... Clouzot's L'enfer (1964)

There's always a fascination for works that don't get completed; there's the allure of trying to establish exactly what went wrong and just how good the finished piece could have been? The unobtainability intensifies the perception of what's left: you fill in the gap with imagination for the unreleased, the fragmentary, the bootlegged...the "lost". In this way "Smile" would have outdone "Sgt Pepper" wouldn't it...if only Brian Wilson had been able to complete it. The magnified glory of the object partially glimpsed...

As film "buffs" we know so much about this feeling. There are just too many lost films.

Henri-George Clouzot's L'enfer is an unfinished film from 1964. Highly innovative and experimental with a substantial budget, excellent cast and three camera crews, it would have languished in legend had it not been for a lift breaking down... The lift contained film archivist Serge Bromberg and Ines Clouzot who got talking as they waited to be rescued. Finding out that many hours of film survived from one of his favourite director's unfinished film, Bromberg set about reconstructing what he could.The result was released as a quite brilliantly realised documentary in 2009, L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Bromborg skilfully interweaves what remains of the footage - selected from over 13 hours' worth - with interviews with the cast and, mostly, crew who speak passionately about the film making. No useable soundtrack survived and so contemporary actors are used to fill in key dialogue.

It all works remarkably well and is compelling viewing in its own right never mind the "what might have beens". Clouzot obviously was a man driven by a vision he couldn't quite master in spite of the budget and the resources he was able to command. Things began to spiral out of control as the time ran out on their location (the lake was due to be drained), tempers frayed and his health gave in.But the film he was able to put together is striking and bold. It tells the story of the breakdown of relations between a married couple of disparate ages, the young and vibrant, Odette played by Romy Schneider and her insecure middle-aged husband, Marcel (Serge Reggiani). Marcel becomes convinced that Odette is having an affair with a hunky driver, played by Jean-Claud Bercq. He is driven to despair becoming more and more incapable of believing in his wife's love and even imagines her in a liaison with Dany Carrel (portraying the cheeky and uninhibited Marylou).

Whether these feelings are based on actuality we do not know and that is beside the point. Clouzot was more interested in the reality of the mind (well he was). He wanted to show the impact of unreasoned jealousy on perception and the distorted reality this can create.

Clouzot used various devices to underline the emotional narrative of the film: black and white to show the everyday and colour to show the distorted view of the fevered mind.

He also used modern kinetic art to unsettle and to show the unsettled and there are many shots of art installations that would have been used (some of which were later featured in his 1967 film La Prisonnière). There are also some amazing sequences with light strobing across of Romy Schneider's exquisite face, reflecting off its oiled surface which is then lightly coated with sparkling metallic dust...ahem!

Faces were painted and odd cloured lipstick was applied to allow even more unreality to be filmed and these produced the now iconic shots of Romy in blue.

Clouzot famously pushed his actors hard and whilst this certainly brought out a striking performance from Ms Schneider, it proved too much for Serge Reggiani. At one point, Clouzot forced Reggiani to run for long periods at a distance a stunt man could have been used. Exhausting for the then 42 year old. Reggiani eventually quit citing a mystery malady. Yet, by this stage this was merely one of many things going wrong on the film and Reggiani's replacement never even filmed a scrap of his part.

Clouzot succumbed to a heart attack and filming had to be stopped. That was it and, maybe, as some of the crew contend, that was the best outcome.

Possibly all Clouzot needed was a really good producer and he could have been coached into making a more focused effort and delivering what could have been one of the films of the 60's. But there I go again...we don't know how good the film could have been. However, what is presented in film by Bromberg is one of the best documentaries on film I've ever seen. And, what is shown in the reconstructed narrative is very strong; atmospheric and liable to linger in the mind.

It is a great pity that Clouzot made only one more film but what he left behind with L'Enfer, shows the same hallmarks of class as Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear.

Respect also goes to Romy Schneider - what an actress! What ever Clouzot threw at her she handled and she stands out for the depth and strength of her performance. All this and she still managed to act, water ski like a champion and wear blue lipstick!

Please buy this DVD!


  1. Hi

    You have now the translation in English on my blogg. About the Stilysh Awards.

    Grettings , and Thankyou again.

  2. Le invitamos Roy! Gracias por tu blog espléndido!