Sunday, 18 April 2010

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Moviemail May 2010)

In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of Le Corbeau and Les Diaboliques, was readying his comeback project after an absence of some years from the cinema. A tale of insomnia and marital jealousy, Inferno had been cast - with Serge Reggiani as the put-upon husband and the then-ascendant Romy Schneider [above] as his eminently peachy wife - and, as was Clouzot’s way, meticulously planned, setting him in opposition to the spontaneous chaos of the emergent French New Wave. Copious test footage was shot. And yet Inferno never saw the light of day, instead languishing in a hell of its creator’s own making.

This gripping documentary, co-directed by archivist Serge Blomberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier, pieces together the remnants of what would almost certainly have become the most audacious and personal film of Clouzot’s career. A seed of doubt is planted early on, with footage of the director’s wedding to the glamorous young Inès, but the film’s first half concentrates on the techniques Clouzot had planned to employ to get further inside his protagonists’ heads than had previously been thought possible.

The extracts we see of these tests, shot by the great William Lubtchansky and featuring spliced faces and acid-drop colours, are nothing other than staggering. The final product, you sense, might have been the missing link between Hitchcock’s classicism and Persona’s modernism, or a precursor to Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s experiments with the cinematic self in Performance; at the very least, it would have been nothing like Clouzot’s earlier work. Given carte blanche to exercise his obsessions, the director began to retreat into himself, and away from the rest of the world.

We’re left with a psychological thriller about the making of a psychological thriller, seamlessly integrating the surviving footage with latter-day readings of the script and archive interviews with Clouzot himself, the real troubled soul of the piece. The one question Blomberg and Annonier imply but never voice outright - the one you’re led to think might well have weighed heavy on Clouzot’s mind during production - is as follows: where was Inès during all this?

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is out now on DVD.

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