Henri-George Clouzot’s Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot), Dir.
Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009
I had never heard of Serge Bromberg before I went to the New York Film Festival’s screening of his. I thought I was going to see a restoration of a long lost film when I sat down to Henri- Georges Clouzot’s Inferno at this year’s New York Film Festival. However, once Serge Bromberg, the filmmaker behind this curious concoction, took the stage to begin introduce the film, I learned that it was something else entirely. Part documentary and part re-enactment, the film is an attempt to understand Clouzot’s most ambitious failure, a film that would have been called Inferno. and cinematic excavator who spent countless hours spelunking the depths of notes, dailies and interviews with every living person connected to the woebegone film, there simply wasn’t enough to resurrect Clouzot’s most ambitious failure. Luckily, he recognized that the story of Inferno could still be told even without all the elements of the original.
Built like a teddy bear with an unending charisma, Mr. Bromberg introduced his film with a lengthy story that never really ended, his moderator futilely giving him the wrap-it-up signal. As if with a professorial sleight-of-hand, his tale ended with him waiting for an elevator with Clouzot’s widow, defeated as she would not hand over her husband’s stockpile of footage. Once the film rolled, the story picked right back up where Bromberg had left off, except now in french. The two got stuck in that elevator and he managed to charm her as he had us. This playfulness in the screening, one of the hallmarks of a festival showing, made it quite obvious how the filmmaker gained access to the extent he did. Still, even as good a cinematic excavator as he is, having spent countless hours spelunking the depths of notes, dailies and interviews with every living person connected to the woebegone film, we slowly learn that there are many missing elements from the project.
The original film was basically the story of a husband who is driven mad by thoughts of his wife cheating on him. It is unclear whether or not she is up to anything untoward, but her hubby has nightmares of misdeeds nonetheless. Already an international success, Mr. Clouzot was able to secure “unlimited” financing for the project, which quickly became the highest budgeted French film in history to that point. Ridden with problems ranging from time limits with the location to sick cast members, the film never came to fruition. Where this becomes so fascinating to film historians and nerds alike is the role that Clouzot plays in the French cinema timeline. Originally celebrated, the French New Wave critics derided him as part of the older school of filmmaking, dismissing much of his work after the rise of the New Wave. Perhaps the limtlessness of Inferno did him in, while the newer generation of constrained filmmakers (small budgets, limited locations, etc.) flourished.
As the titles of both the documentary and the original film imply, the entire endeavor was about a descent into madness. With his massive budget, Clouzot began experimenting with some phenomenal special effects, many of which have been restored for this documentary. I can’t quite describe how these tests looked, but I can tell you that it is reminiscent of the great Geoffrey Unsworth’s brilliant work on Superman: The Movie years later. (To give credit where credit is due, Unsworth used some of Stan Brakhage’s experimentations in that film, but if any of them could have seen Inferno…) In one of the most amazing series of tests (illustrated above), the team painted the actors various colors so they would look human once the colors were chemically reversed. Initially this was to turn a river red, but the amount of tests make it seem as though Clouzot had even more in mind. Bright, ephemeral, and relentlessly inventive, the cinematography itself is worth the peek if this film comes to your town.
Truth be told, the story that Mr. Bromberg cobbles together from the breadcrumbs Clouzot left behind is not all that interesting. With his youthful spirit and encyclopedic knowledge of film, he makes clear the excitement he had diving into this lost treasure, but in the end there just isn’t enough to keep our attention. Given that no audio was recovered, some scenes were staged and cut with footage from the original. Essentially, the task was to spin hay into gold, but only half the hay was there. An interesting little piece indeed, but I would much rather have gone on the adventure myself, doubled over film winders looking for clues to the masterpiece this genius could never complete. But perhaps Clouzot was smarter than us all and knew that no matter how out of the box he could go, Inferno would always be a fool’s errand. Thankfully, Mr. Bromberg was enough of a fool to bring us something to chew on.