‘Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno’ Is a Tantalizing Look at a Famous ‘Lost’ Film

In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of The Wages of Fear (1953) Diabolique (1955), and The Mystery of Picasso (1956), was granted an essentially unlimited budget by Columbia Pictures to shoot a new film. Titled Inferno, this film was to star Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani in a tale of an ordinary man driven mad by the demons of jealousy.

Perhaps intoxicated by the opportunity to shoot without the usual budgetary constraints Clouzot began a series of cinematic experiments intended to portray visually the distorted thought processes of a jealous husband. Unfortunately, the production was beset from the start by difficulties: the director seemed disorganized and indecisive, the cast rebelled, and soon Clouzot became ill and filming was halted only three weeks after it began.

That might have been the end of the story in which case Inferno would exist only in the collective imagination as one of the great unrealized films of our time as well as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls, for creative work, of having unlimited resources. But instead, film restorer Serge Bromberg discovered, through a chance encounter with Inès Clouzot (they were trapped together on a stuck elevator, the kind of meet cute that belongs in an Ernst Lubitsch film) that some 185 cans of film shot by her late husband had been preserved. That footage forms the core of the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, directed by Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea.

Bromberg and Medrea present the story of Inferno as two detectives might recall one of their favorite cases, piecing together the story of this doomed film through archival and contemporary interviews, still photographs, and voiceover narration by Bromberg . They also present re-creations of scenes from the film with the contemporary actors, Bérenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, assisted by the screenplay and Clouzot’s detailed notes and storyboards. Test footage reveals the fresh beauty and self-assurance of the then 26-year-old Schneider (who had already worked with Otto Preminger, Orson Welles and René Clément) as well as the contrasting styles of masculinity presented by the film’s male protagonists.

In the plot of Inferno Marcel (Serge Reggiani), husband of Odette (Schneider) and proprietor of a seaside hotel, is a petit bourgeois type whose age (Reggiani was 42 at the time of filming) and lack of physical beauty (Jacques Douy describes him as having “a head like a carved chestnut”) make him pathologically afraid of losing his wife’s affections. Chief among his rivals, at least in his mind, is the hotel guest and village mechanic Martineau, played by the ruggedly handsome Jean-Claude Bercq (Waldo Lydecker, the waspish critic from Otto Preminger’s Laura, would have described Martineau as “disgustingly earthy”). Add to this the pert and free-spirited Marylou, played by Dany Carrel, as a character “both angel and devil” who seems to embody the ever-present possibility of sexual betrayal and you have the set-up for a drama worthy of Othello.

The heart of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is the footage showing the results of Clouzot’s experiments which seemed aimed at achieving, on film and using real physical effects, the kind of color and shape distortion which can easily be produced digitally today. He had a group of expert technicians shoot a variety of experimental takes to gauge the effects of methods such as shooting through running water and using distorting lenses, reflections, odd lighting, and double exposures to bend and warp the images before the camera.

The results are fascinating but even more intriguing are the color experiments, intended to be used for the sections of the film representing Marcel’s fantasies. It’s instructive, in this digital age, to learn just how these effects were created. For instance in a water-skiing scene Clouzot wanted the lake to appear blood-red, an effect achieved through color inversion. However to keep the actors in the scene looking normal they had to wear gray-green makeup (which would look pink when inverted), blue lipstick and clothing in complementary colors to what was intended to appear in the final film. Some of Clouzot’s experiments incorporated contemporary trends in fashion (see-through dresses) and art (the distorting geometries of op-art) while others seem to have been purely the product of his own imagination.

We’ll never know what kind of a film Inferno would have turned out to be. The basic story is nothing special, but had Clouzot’s visual and aural experiments successfully been incorporated into the narrative, he might have produced one of the great films of all time. On the other hand, unfinished work always holds the potential of genius because it’s still dwelling in possibility rather than being actualized in reality. So a completed Inferno might instead have been an all-around flop, panned by critics as pretentious and rejected by the general public as incomprehensible. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that but can simply enjoy the fruits of Clouzot’s ahead-of-the-curve visual experiments and, if we so choose, complete the film for ourselves in our own heads.

The Flicker Alley release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno comes with two discs, one Blu-ray and one conventional DVD. The documentary (in HD transfer) is included as a nine-minute interview with Bromberg, while the Blu-ray disc also includes a 57-minute featurette on the making of the documentary and an image gallery of still photographs. I’m not sure of the logic involved in packaging the film this way: those with a Blu-ray player will want to watch the materials in that format, while those with only access to a conventional DVD player will of necessity watch the other disc, but it’s unlikely anyone would have the need for both.

RATING 8 / 10