• Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno



    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: February 5, 2018
    Director: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea
    Cast: Romy Schneider, Serge Reggiani, Costa-Gavras, Berenice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin, Dany Carrel
    Year: 2009
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    In 1964, the acclaimed French filmmaker Henri-George Clouzot, flushed from the critical and commercial success of his earlier screen triumphs The Wages of Fear (remade brilliantly by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer) and Les Diaboliques (a noted inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s own iconic horror masterpiece Psycho), set out to make his most ambitious and challenging motion picture to date – Inferno (L’Enfer). After months of preparation that involved an arduous casting search and the development of potentially revolutionary practical effects, the film completely fell apart three weeks into principal photography.

    Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s vivid and engrossing 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno digs deep into the fascinating history behind the film and its ultimate dissolution, wedding contemporary interviews with many of the key surviving members of the creative team to a wealth of silent black & white and color footage including screen and camera tests and silent scenes from the frustratingly unfinished Inferno. Additional pieces of puzzle are contributed in the form of Clouzot’s own storyboards and annotated script pages.

    Clouzot’s film intended to tell the story of Marcel and Odette, a happily married couple running a hotel in the south-central Cantal region of France whose blessed union is gradually unraveled when Marcel begins to suspect his bride is cheating on him with handsome town mechanic Martineau. The director cast the Italian-born French actor and singer Serge Reggiani (Army of Shadows) as Marcel, and for the integral role of Odette, Clouzot chose the Viennese actress Romy Schneider, who at that point in her career had made films with the likes of Luchino Visconti, Otto Preminger, and Orson Welles. Jean-Claude Bercq, later to be seen in John Frankenheimer’s suspenseful World War II adventure The Train, was awarded the part of Martineau.

    Prior to the commencement of filming, the screenplay went through multiple revisions while Clouzot, having spent time living in a French artists’ community years after the death of his wife Vera, was given carte blanche by co-financier Columbia Pictures to indulge his every visionary whim. He wanted to portray Marcel’s descent into paranoia and madness to be visualized through a series of disturbing fantasies that would be created through the most audacious lighting and photographic effects work to ever be immortalized on celluloid.

    Among the interviewees in this documentary are the Green filmmaker Costa-Gavras (Missing), who was Clouzot’s assistant and helped prep Inferno, effects artist Joel Stein, composer Gilbert Amy, soundman Jean-Louis Decarme, and more. Amy and Decarme had been tasked by Clouzot with creating the multi-layer soundscape that would add to the disorienting sensations created by Stein’s innovative visual effects depicting Marcel’s increasing distrust of Odette and his deteriorating state of mind, all inspired by Clouzot’s perennially active imagination.

    Clouzot’s unlimited funding (unprecedented for such a small film, even one with outsized ambitions) enabled him to employ three full camera crews, each free to operate under the director’s supervision without financial constraint or studio oversight. One was headed by his Les Diaboliques cinematographer Armand Thirard, while another was given to Jean Renoir’s nephew Claude, who had shot his uncle’s 1951 feature The River and would go on to work with Roger Vadim on his sexy space escapade Barbarella and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me. Clouzot took his sweet time putting the production together, spending months on perfecting the look of the film, and planned to shoot the everyday scenes in black & white and Marcel’s delusions in a dazzling array of colors.

    By the time filming was finally ready to begin, Clouzot had become totally and helplessly obsessed with Inferno. Crew members were forced to be at his beck and call day and night in the event he was suddenly seized by an idea. The production quickly fell behind schedule as the director’s perfectionist nature compelled him to rewrite and reshoot scenes already committed to film, perplexing his crew and alienating his actors. Tensions were running high all the time; Reggiani’s relationship with Clouzot was practically in ruins when the actor decided to beat a hasty retreat from the set, citing a case of “Maltese fever” as the reason for his shocking departure. Jean-Louis Trintigant (The Great Silence) was brought to Cantal as a possible replacement for Reggiani, but he soon left without having shot a single scene.

    Feeling that he come too far to stop now, Clouzot continued to shoot with Schneider (herself starting to have doubts about the director’s obsessive tendencies and evolving vision) and Bercq until a heart attack finally brought the filming of Inferno to an unfortunate conclusion. The production never resumed once Clouzot recovered, and the director only made one more film – 1968’s La Prisonniere – before his death in 1977.

    All that survived from Inferno’s three-week shoot was 185 cans of camera negative, constituting 13 hours of exposed film and a cinematic revolution that would never be viewed as Henri-George Clouzot envisioned. Bromberg and Medrea also sought out the original audio tracks for the recovered footage, but since what they found was unusable, they brought in actors Jacques Gamblin (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life) and Berenice Bejo (The Artist) to play the roles of Marcel and Odette in recreated dialogue scenes. Coupled with Clouzot’s hallucinatory imagery, the result is as complete a reconstruction of Inferno – or at least the parts of it that were shot before production closed down – as we will likely ever encounter.

    The director himself is present via a French television interview conducted before he initiated Inferno, and he can be spotted in the behind-the-scenes and test footage. Clouzot’s disturbing vision of a marriage in free fall and a man’s sanity being consumed by his own demons not only mirror the difficulties he faced getting it on film in a way that would satisfy despite the costs his career and reputation would incur in the process, but the chaotic journey from script to screen for Inferno nearly resembles Francis Ford Coppola’s battles of Biblical proportions in the making of his masterpiece Apocalypse Now. The difference is that Apocalypse was able to be finished and released against every odd imaginable, while Inferno remains mostly lost to the ages.

    Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary never fails to mesmerize and inform, and it managed to kick off a minor sub-genre in non-fiction features devoted to the unmade films of legend that also include Jodorowsky’s Dune and Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – both films I happen to love dearly. Films that were pitched, scripted, storyboarded, cast, and nearly went before the cameras before overpowering circumstances resulted in their tragic cancellation have always been of great interest to me. I have several books devoted to the subject, among them Simon Braund’s The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, which has a terrific chapter on Inferno that I used as research material for this review.

    Could Inferno have been Clouzot’s definitive masterpiece? Perhaps. It may also have lead to a major upheaval in world cinema that would influence countless generations of would-be visionary filmmakers, but there have been plenty of those. We may never know what cultural impact Inferno could have had, but based on Bromberg and Medrea’s powerful documentary, we were robbed of a great motion picture made by a genuine artist of film. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is proof positive that you can have all the elements necessary in creating a memorable movie and the forces of fate can still somehow manage to undo months of progress. Just ask Terry Gilliam.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    As part of their Arrow Academy line, Arrow Video has released Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Blu-ray in an excellent package with a 1080p high-definition transfer of the film to match. Presented in the 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the picture quality is mostly crisp and wonderful to look at, the best of the bunch being the original footage Clouzot shot of Marcel’s lurid fantasies as they explode with colors that pop and never bleed. The amount of print damage and grain content in the archival footage shifts depending on the conditions of the film elements, but they primarily look healthy and vibrant. The contemporary interviews and the recreated scenes featuring Gamblin and Bejo can’t help but appear bland and stagy compared to the unearthed Inferno footage, but in terms of overall quality, they’re fine. Skin tones are accurate and texture and detail in the clothing and modest set design benefit the most from the upgrade in resolution.

    Arrow has backed up the HD transfer with French language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 audio options. The film was mixed and exhibited in Dolby Digital, though the talk-heavy endeavor hardly requires a surround sound boost to achieve its intended effect, and both tracks deliver an abundance of clear and concise audio to support the capacious interviews and Bruno Alexiu’s stylish original soundtrack compositions. The spacious arrangements of every crucial element in the mix ensures a pleasurable listening experience that supplements the visuals beautifully. Optional English subtitles have also been provided.

    Most of the extra features have been ported over from Flicker Alley’s 2011 Region A Blu-ray release, but exclusive to the Arrow edition is a recent interview with French cinema expert and academic Lucy Mazdon (22 minutes) in which she discusses the filmmaking career of Henri-Georges Clouzot and the troubled production of Inferno with great critical insight. They have also included an archival English language interview with co-director Bromberg (18 minutes) that gives him an opportunity to talk about how the documentary came to be and how the footage Clouzot shot for Inferno before the production was abandoned was discovered after an exhaustive search.

    From the Flicker Alley release we have an introduction (9 minutes) from Bromberg in French with English subtitles that is essentially a condensed, high-speed version of his longer interview. Next up is “They Saw Inferno” (60 minutes), a lengthy assemblage of interview outtakes from the documentary and more footage from the original shoot that expand on stories that made it into the final cut along with some that didn’t. Closing the extras out is a small still gallery (41 images) and the theatrical trailer (2 minutes). Arrow has also supplied their Blu-ray release with new cover art by Twins of Evil and a collector’s booklet (limited to the first pressing) featuring a new essay on the film by Ginette Vincendeau.

    The Final Word:

    Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is an utterly captivating and immersive documentary that tells the story of the making and unmaking of what could have been one of the greatest films ever made in loving detail. The real pleasure is getting to see some of the test footage and scenes captured forever on celluloid by Clouzot and marveling at the visionary masterwork that could have been. I would happily recommend this film to cinephiles interested in the greatest films never made and Arrow Video has produced a fine supplements package to go along with the laudable high-definition transfer.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!