In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of such cinematic landmarks as suspense classic The Wages Of Fear and the murderous Gothic psycho-drama Les Diaboliques, considered by many (not least himself) to be the ‘French Hitchcock’, was, lamentably, on the back foot. French cinema’s new wave gunslingers had the previous generation of screen masters firmly in their sights. In this revolutionised environment, in which improvisation was paramount, Clouzot, with his obsessive storyboarding, highly structured plots and notorious manipulation of actors, was considered somewhat passé.
Clouzot had his retaliation planned: Inferno (or L’Infer, in French, meaning ‘hell’). This would be the film to show the pups a thing or two. More, by a fusion of Modernist invention and hyper-focused Direction, Clouzot intended to invent an entirely new style of cinema. Yet, only 20 days after shooting had begun, the film was abandoned and would never be completed. Clouzot had suffered an on-set heart attack and been hospitalised. He was to make only one more film before his death and never regain his former reputation.
That we know so much about, and can see so much evidence of, the ambition that was Inferno, is entirely down to the fortuitous accident that trapped film archivist and historian Serge Bromberg and Inès Clouzot, Henri-Georges’s widow, together in a Paris elevator in 2007. Passing the time before rescue, Madame Clouzot revealed that 185 cans (13 hours) of L’Infer celluloid, long considered lost, had survived, comprising rushes, costume tests and singular kinetic film experiments in both colour and black and white. Tragically, the dialogue sound reels were gone. The non-completion of the film, she revealed, was Clouzot’s greatest regret (he died in 1977). Bromberg, an evangelist of lost film, stunned by the quality and quantity of what he had been gifted, resolved to edit what he could and create a documentary showing what Inferno could have been and account for its failed resolution. This was released (with a superlative cool jazz soundtrack) in 2009 as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno.
Inferno itself has a simple subject: extreme jealousy. An hotelier marries an exceptionally beautiful young woman and becomes propelled into a nightmare world of paranoid fantasy concerning her perceived infidelities. A small world of domestic paradise is tragically and needlessly rendered into a living hell. That framing this story appealed to Clouzot is, perhaps, unsurprising. Of an infamously controlling and obsessive nature (another commonality with his hero, Hitchcock) Clouzot was admired and hated in almost equal measure. Described by Brigitte Bardot (whose stomach needed pumping after Clouzot decided to drug her during the filming of La Vérité) as “a negative being, forever at odds with himself and the world around him”, and notorious for slapping the actress Suzy Delair on the set of Quai des Orfèvres (an act about which she dismissively, but damningly, remarked “So what? He slapped others as well…”), tales and acts of misanthropy were Clouzot’s true metier. A contradictory man, often given to warmth and generosity but who regarded actors as a necessary evil, his modus operandi was to break his cast members down, then mould them into the required ‘shapes’. That this process was grudgingly tolerated by his actor/victims stands testimony to the fact that Clouzot got results.
Despite (or because of) his fearsome reputation, Clouzot proceeded to assemble a stellar cast of actors and technicians. Inferno found the superb, splendidly ‘ugly’ character actor Serge Reggiani cast as the unfortunate hotelier, Marcel; but the real coup was to land Romy Schneider as the young Odette, his wife. At 26 years old, the luminously beautiful but notoriously forthright, Austrian-born Schneider was a highly accomplished actress and one of the most popular in France. The diminutively sexy Dany Carrell and classic French beefcake Jean-Claude Bercq rounded off the principal cast as Odette’s local friends/‘lovers’. As news of this ensemble became known, the film began to be anticipated as the cinematic event of the decade and the world of French cinema was a-twitter with expectation of the seemingly inevitable Clouzot/Schneider clash of wills.
Planning, with meticulous sketching and framing of focal angles (“I improvise on paper” was Clouzot’s infamous riposte to the nouvelle vague), began in Paris in March 1964 in a lavish suite of rooms at The George V Hotel in Paris. It was Clouzot’s contention that no director had ever succeeded in fully portraying the physical and mental anguish of obsessive jealousy. But as his lead character’s mind began to crack, Clouzot intended the world to crack around him. To this end he looked to the then cutting-edge genres of musique concrète and kinetic art. Gleaning sounds from Pierre Boulez’s Ircam Institute, a soundtrack was devised to sonically portray Marcel’s breakdown. Sine waves, rigorously scored, and layers of reversed and echoed voices soundtrack Marcel’s paranoiac internal dialogue. This was crude technology by modern standards, perhaps, yet possessing the direct expressionistic force of a freshly invented medium, so that Marcel’s insomnia dialogue, for example, consisting of increasingly warped repetitions of the phrase “She’s here. You’re safe”, is nightmarish to endure.
But it was in the process of fashioning kinetic art into film language that Clouzot and his technicians struck gold. The visual instability central to this form of art (the best-known examples of which are the mobiles and suspended sculptures of the Alexanders, Calder and Rodchenko) was perfect for the psychological depiction required and, this being the ’60s, it made the film irrefutably ‘now’. Certainly Clouzot’s intention was to utilise these images, both as an updated equivalent of the Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and as a means of depicting Marcel’s fantasy world. Centring upon images of Schneider, these were to be the heart of the colour sequences of the film (normal life being designated by black and white). Some of the images suggest the grotesque (the shifting, multiple eye shots, for example), but most possess a remarkable multi-faceted nature. By manipulation of light and shadow, the use of translucent screens and curtains of water, Schneider’s siren face is transformed into alternate expressions of longing, shock, fear, cunning and mocking lasciviousness: all reflections of Marcel’s constant psychotic attempts to re-examine Odette’s true feelings and motives. Yet cumulatively the shots create something more and quite ‘other’: extraordinarily sensual postcards sent from a half-realised cinematic world.
Despite the impressiveness of these innovations, it was here that the first warning signs appeared. The process of creating the kinetic art scenes had taken months, far longer than intended, and seemed to have no obvious point of conclusion. At least one inside observer saw it as experimentation for its own sake. Filmmaker Bernard Stora, a young intern on the film, reported that: “I walked into something totally insane. Clouzot had the best cameramen and the most seasoned technicians. It seemed clear from the beginning that they didn’t know what they were doing.”
However, where some saw chaotic extravagance the studio executives saw what they wanted, ‘genius at work’. Inferno was granted an unlimited budget and location filming began on July 4 in the village of Garabit in the Cantal region of south-central France. Almost instantly problems developed in relation to location, crew and cast. Lamentably, the problem at the heart of these was the biggest of all, Clouzot himself.
Ostensibly, the setting was perfect, a remote hotel, a large, picturesque lake, a vertiginous viaduct and spectacularly high railway bridge still carrying steam trains. The latter was important, as the distant piercing steam whistle was to act as a trigger for Marcel’s paranoiac perceptions. The French summer heat was extreme, but one other complication in particular loomed. The crucial lake was due to be drained by the local power company within 20 days of the shoot’s commencement. Clouzot was aware of this. There were other hotels, other lakes, but this was his dream location and he recklessly resolved that all exterior shots could be accomplished in the brief time frame available.
The largesse of his budget had allowed Clouzot to acquire three full film crews for his shoot. In the mid-’60s this amounted to a mass of heavy equipment and a veritable regiment of technicians. Although largely comprised of Clouzot ‘loyalists’, sourced from his previous films, the director refused to delegate. Instead, he insisted on micro-managing the first crew while the others, although set up to film, were left to swelter in the heat and fume at their inactivity. Additionally, some of the location colour scenes required the lake to turn red. Pre CGI, this necessitated an immensely time-consuming process of pigment reversing the actors’ clothes and makeup in order that continuity was maintained when the colour shift was made in editing. Again, Clouzot would supervise every facet. In the light of the looming deadline it seemed as though the director was almost subconsciously stacking the odds against himself. With each passing day he began to work more slowly, more eccentrically, and focused increasingly on small details. Doubts began to surface as to whether Clouzot himself knew what he was trying to do.
Conflict with the cast was inevitable. A lifelong insomniac, Clouzot would expect the entire crew and cast to be willing to discuss any change in script or plan (however slight) at whatever hour of the night it occurred to him. It was not, however, Romy Schneider who failed to keep patience with Clouzot’s demanding ways, but Serge Reggiani. The actor seems, even before filming had begun, to have worked himself into a state of high tension concerning the shoot, maintaining that he would not allow ‘La Clouz’ to “get him”. How wrong he was, and on one occasion, Clouzot’s manipulation techniques would have disastrous consequences. A climactic sequence finds Marcel, high on the viaduct over a river, observing Odette with a ‘lover’ in a speedboat upon the lake. He then begins a despairing breakneck sprint across the bridge, attempting to reach the landing point ahead of the boat, to finally confirm his jealous fears. Clouzot ‘trained’ Reggiani for this (in the oppressive heat, when purportedly suffering from Maltese ’flu) by forcing him to repeatedly run after a camera-car, up precipitous mountain roads, for up to ten miles a day.
The exhausted Reggiani, a man who knew his own worth, snapped. On day 14 of the shoot he declared that he “wasn’t there to be insulted by a schizophrenic maniac” (as recalled by crew member Lan Nguyen) and threatened litigation. Then Clouzot’s leading man walked off set, never to return.
A scrambled search for a replacement took place, but it was too late. In response, the ever-sleepless Clouzot took to re-writing the script throughout the nights. The burden now placed upon him to edit his way out of this catastrophe, and the requirement to shoot yet more new footage in ever diminishing time, began to wreak havoc upon his health. In the last week of filming Clouzot, either still refusing to speed up or simply incapable of it, became increasingly fatigued and alienated from his team. His final shoot, during which he suffered a stress-induced heart attack, was the filming of a light ‘Lesbian tryst’ between Schneider and Carrel. It was all too much.
Viewing the extant fragments of Inferno, what becomes heartbreakingly clear is that Clouzot was, in fact, getting things absolutely right. For all Reggiani’s complaints of the over-shooting, in the running scenes, his expression of frustrated exhaustion as he sprints along the viaduct (one more time!) is a perfect reflection of his character’s inner turmoil. In an early morning scene, Schneider has never looked more demure or blameless as she walks outside the hotel, while the swim-suited Carrel and Bercq, waving ‘hellos’, portray near comic-book desirability and Reggiani, observing from his window, caught in mid-shave, is the very picture of the ‘uninvited’ man. The pitch perfect framing of Schneider water-skiing on the lake is a sequence of singular cinematic beauty, iconic enough to rival Anita Ekberg’s Trevi Fountain scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, from a decade earlier. The kinetic shots create a kaleidoscopic heaven and hell wonderland of imagery. That so potent an impact is engendered by these mere fragments make it all the more regrettable that Clouzot was incapable of completing his magnum opus.
Films that fall apart are usually ‘cast of thousands’ affairs, where logistical issues, or just general bad luck, stymie the production. Terry Gilliam’s attempt to film Don Quixote is an example, and Apocalypse Now was nearly lost in similar fashion, as was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. This should not have been a problem with Inferno, a one-set, small-cast, and essentially domestic drama. Was it simply a very bad case of ‘finishing anxiety’ on Clouzot’s part? The suggestions from those connected with the project are that the director had found, from the kinetic experiments onwards, that he had more components than he knew what to do with. The cinematic possibilities grew out of his control and in combination with his own propensity to up the ante on any difficult situation he, finally, no longer knew how to pull all the parts together. Indeed, watching Bromberg’s documentary, the strongest impression is that of a multiple version film wherein scenes spin off into meanings and contexts of their own. That indeed is both the beauty of Inferno, the documentary, and the frustration of Inferno, the film that should have been.