Return to Hell 

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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno
Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Had Henri-Georges Clouzot completed his 1964 psychodrama L’Enfer, its altering of our understanding of film history would probably have been minimal, but what exists of his expressionistic departure from such well-crafted suspensers as Wages of Fear contains enough strikingly bizarre imagery to rate the director’s belated engagement with post-Nouvelle Vague modernism a footnote in the cinematic annals. For Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea draw on the 185 extant reels from the lost film, intercutting a generous sampling of original footage with scenes of contemporary actors reading from the script and interviews with original crew members, providing viewers with both the troubled backstory of the disastrous shoot and an approximation of what the finished film might have looked like.

Inspired by Fellini, a “kinetic art” exhibition he attended and an unlimited budget, Clouzot staged an exhaustive series of experimental tests to find the best way of representing the deteriorating mental state of the film’s fiercely jealous protagonist. These endless reels contain instances of both the weirdly sublime (Romy Schneider’s face being bombarded by a range of colored lights) and the datedly banal (dozens of eyes superimposed to fill the screen). How effectively these bits of business would have fit into the film’s narrative—and there’s the sense that the visual trickery may have proved exhaustingly disproportionate to the character’s relatively simple state of mind—is something Bromberg and Medrea’s movie can’t answer. But it’s not every film-related documentary that simultaneously forces a reconsideration of a major cinematic figure and opens up new areas of cinephiliac speculation.

Opens July 16 at IFC Center

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