J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

It would have been a case of an old master dramatically one-upping the young turks, but it was not to be. Instead, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s radical foray into psychological expressive filmmaking cratered during its chaotic production. However, 185 cans of film survived of Clouzot’s obsessive tests and aborted three-week shoot, giving viewers a tantalizing sense of what his creative vision might have looked like had he successfully realized it in Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier’s documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Often labeled the French Hitchcock, Clouzot was one of the most successful French director’s of his time. Yet, the Nouvelle Vague was often rather dismissive of the man who helmed classics like Diabolique and The Wages of Fear. In 1964, he easily secured the cast he wanted for his prospective new film. Romy Schneider was to portray Odette, the young vivacious wife of middle-aged inn-keeper Marcel, played by Serge Reggiani. Initially tranquil in their wedded bliss, Marcel’s obsessive jealousy would lead to his emotional implosion. If this premise sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer, starring Emmanuelle Béart, was based on Clouzot’s original screenplay. Ultimately though, Chabrol made a Chabrol film rather than the deliberately experimental work Clouzot envisioned.

Clouzot filmed the couple’s daily lives in black-and-white, but Marcel’s jealous rages were rendered in psychedelic color. With morphing faces, surrealist dreamscapes, color inversions, and other bizarre optical innovations, Inferno would have been one strange head-trip. It was also somewhat racy, featuring Schneider, already an international superstar, and French starlet Dany Carrel bare-breasted. This was completely unlike any previous Clouzot film, yet Columbia Pictures gave him carte blanche to do as he pleased.

Many of the surviving crew members speculate the blank check from Hollywood might have been a mixed blessing, removing the imposed discipline of financial constraints from a production that spun out of control. Relations deteriorated on the set, until eventually the whole enterprise collapsed. Yet, the swirling images that survive sans soundtrack still have a disconcerting effect.

Bromberg and Medrea Annonier interview a number of Clouzot’s surviving collaborators on the ill-fated project, including his assistant director Costa-Gavras. They also stage readings of Clouzot’s script with Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamlin as the troubled couple, but this seems somewhat unnecessary given the existence of the Chabrol film (which the documentary never references). Still, the combined effect their original footage and Clouzot’s extant film and story-boards give an intriguing impression of what might have been.

Documenting some compelling cinema history, Bromberg and Medrea Annonier’s film will drastically alter cineastes’ perceptions of Clouzot as an auteur. Indeed, forty-some years later, his innovative visual effects still retain a disorienting effect, and even in such unusual archival footage, Romy Schneider is always worth watching on screen. A great cinematic “what-if’ story, Clouzot’s Inferno opens this Friday (7/16) in New York at the IFC Center.

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