Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a film by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, screened on Sunday afternoon at the New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution.
Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary derives most of its pleasures from the alternate-universe frisson of glimpsing a master filmmaker’s unfulfilled fantasies. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno merely sketches the behind-the-scenes details surrounding Clouzot’s aborted 1964 production, but thankfully lavishes screen time on the stunning remnants, drawn from 185 cans of footage kept by the director’s widow. “From the director of Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques…” would have come a tale of obsessive jealousy—but partly rendered in colorful, proto-psychedelic and Op Art-inspired visuals. A response to naysaying New Wavers (and Fellini’s 8 1/2), the film starred Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani as dallying wife and paranoid husband at a lakeside resort village, but the effort collapsed from within, under the strain of Clouzot’s perfectionism.
Bromberg’s narration and interviews with surviving crew (William Lubtchansky, Bernard Stora, et al.) trace the tandem decline of the production and its insomniac orchestrator. Columbia moneymen gave Clouzot carte blanche, and the exacting filmmaker, already in the habit of drafting exhaustive storyboards and characterological graphs, initiated a “world of tests” and camera experiments. This virtual catalogue of light, shadow, gel and water effects was intended for Reggiani’s dark ruminations over Schneider’s fidelity. And so we witness Schneider’s tongue pass through a lens-parallel curtain of water under complex shadowplay, or the two leads slathered in green make-up for an involved color-swapping trick.
The somewhat repetitive documentary makes Clouzot’s ever-closing circles palpable, tacitly twinned with his film’s theme of cancerous jealousy. Clouzot’s footage, produced by a team that included a cameraman from The Passion of Joan of Arc, presaged the psychedelica splashed about later in the decade, but put to different ends. Where color gels and cascading lighting would then signify liberated if unsettling perception, here they bubble up out of a disturbed psyche (which would arguably be one sign of Clouzot’s classicism: formal disruption denotes psychological distress). The unquiet-minded Clouzot himself would have a heart attack, halting production, though he would go on to film La Prisionnière (1968).
Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary is less of an autopsy than an exhibition—the final third lets run longer excerpts from Clouzot’s film. But much audiovisual reconstruction and restitching was also involved, and there are limits to our sense of how Clouzot himself might have assembled his dreamcoat, though in some ways, as with what survives of, say, Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, the footage speaks loudly enough for itself. (Interspersed are a few staged readings by contemporary actors, which are unremarkable but an understandable inclusion for rhythm and layering.) Bromberg is by profession a film preservationist (of Lobster Films) whom New Yorkers may also know as the silent-film showman for BAM’s Treasures from a Chest series. His infectious wonder emanates from this limited but intriguing documentary.