Few directors exerted such exacting control over the medium as Henri-Georges Clouzot. In films like Quai Des Orfèvres, The Wages Of Fear, and Diabolique, Clouzot made every element work in harmony, from the remarkable work he coaxed from his cast to a command of suspense techniques that rivaled Alfred Hitchcock’s. A demanding perfectionist who, by some reports, never slept, Clouzot held tight to the reins. In 1964, those reins slipped from his hands while he was working on L’Enfer (Inferno), a story of obsessive jealousy that would have found Clouzot using experimental techniques of a sort never before attempted. Instead, he ended up with 13 hours of exposed footage and a film he’d never be able to complete.
Part reconstruction, part investigation, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno finds co-directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier attempting to determine what happened with L’Enfer while conveying a sense of what the film might have been like through existing footage and scenes of contemporary actors performing key moments from the film. It doesn’t do a brilliant job with any of those functions. The new performances, while fine, add little, and Bromberg’s narration takes a casual, details-light approach even when covering major developments in the film’s production. Thankfully, the story—and especially Clouzot’s existing footage—is fascinating enough to transcend the treatment.
Eager to catch up with the French New Wave, which shunned him, and inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Clouzot decided to go to the edge with L’Enfer. Given a virtually bottomless budget, he shot can after can of test footage for hallucinatory scenes meant to illustrate his protagonist’s madness, drawing from then-thriving movements like op art and early electronic music, and working, as one of his collaborators called it, in “the improbable colors of madness.” Seas of eyes blur as they flow into one another. The faces of two men join together at the halfway point. Abstract shapes bulge lustfully, and plants turn shades not found in nature. As glimpsed here, L’Enfer looks weird and disorienting in ways that make James Stewart’s descents into madness in Vertigo appear almost tame. Would it have worked in the finished film? Clouzot’s inability to complete the film due to conflicts with the actors and his own health problems leaves that as one of film history’s most frustratingly unanswerable questions. But folly or masterpiece, L’Enfer would still have looked like no other film ever made. While Bromberg and Annonier’s film has shortcomings as a documentary, simply bringing Clouzot’s lost work to light makes it a significant achievement.