Review: “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009)
WARNING: HELLISH SPOILERS
In an episode of “Dirty Sexy Money,” Craig Wright’s short-lived, slightly skewed take on the “Dynasty”s of the world, Nick George (Peter Krause), lawyer to the wealthy Darling family, finally gets around to donating some of his money to charity. That was the reason he took the job in the first place—so he’d be rich enough to help his favorite causes—but money and power have already begun to curdle things for him, and as one non-profit thanks him profusely for the check, saying, “You have no idea how much this will change things,” Nick smiles and responds, “I know. But I’m giving it to you anyway.”
I thought of this scene while watching “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary on one of the great unmade films by one of the great French film directors.
What sinks a film already in production? It’s rarely one thing. In “Lost in La Mancha,” a 2002 documentary on Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a modern Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp as his Sancho Panza, the problems are numerous: a tight schedule, crappy weather, and ill health (Gilliam’s aging Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, had to return to France with an enlarged prostate). But what truly killed the production was an unwillingness to compromise. When Harvey Keitel suddenly seemed wrong for “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen and finished the film. When Jason Robards fell ill during “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog replaced him with Klaus Kinski and finished the film. But when Rochefort returned to France with his enlarged prostate, Gilliam waited. And waited. And waited. Rochefort was the Don Quixote he wanted and he refused to get another. And he never finished the film.
By 1964, when he began production on “L’enfer,” his tale of insane jealousy between a young married couple in a small, resort town in southern France, Henri-Georges Clouzot was already a legendary director, but a decade removed from his more famous films, “Le salaire de la peur” (“Wages of Fear”) and “Les diaboliques,” and two decades removed from my personal favorites, “Le corbeau” and “Quai des Orfevres.”
More, since his last film, “La vérité” with Brigitte Bardot, in 1960, the New Wave, French or otherwise, had taken hold of the imagination of world cinema; and while the young artistes certainly admired Clouzot, some felt his craftsmanship and storyboarding—everything planned beforehand so he could concentrate on the actors—were at odds with the New Wave’s love of the improvisational. They admired him but felt something about him was... passé.
Clouzot himself had become enamored of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and its, to him, “new way of using images,” and one wonders if he didn’t feel the need to prove something—either to the upstarts or to himself.
“L’enfer” was being bankrolled by Columbia Pictures, and Hollywood executives arrived early in the process to screen the first shots. One anticipates their reaction. A European director who wants to use images “in a new way” versus American moneymen who are never interested in the new or artistic. They’ll give him dull notes. They’ll whittle him down. They’ll point him toward the obvious.
Instead they did something more disastrous. They gave him money.
They loved what they saw and Clouzot received “an unlimited budget.” Says one of the crew: Clouzot then “went off into a world of tests that were completely new to the camera.”
We see some of these tests—depicting husband Marcel’s descent into the madness of jealousy—and they’re startling and beautiful nearly 50 years later. Lights swirl around the face of star Romy Schneider, playing the wife, Odette, and in milliseconds she switches from dutiful to demonous and back again. Is she smiling at me or laughing at me? What secrets does she hold? Who IS she? I went through a bout of extreme jealousy 25 years ago and these shots brought it all back again.
Most of the movie was filmed in black-and-white, but for these delusional scenes—his “Oz,” as it were—Clouzot used color. He filmed Schneider waterskiing and turned the lake blood red. He filmed her with cold, blue lipstick. He became obsessed with Marcel’s obsession. The plan was for four weeks on location and 14 weeks in the studio, but Clouzot was falling behind schedule and the crew felt directionless. One of his leads, Serge Reggiani, who played Marcel, and for whom Clouzot fought to get on the film, didn’t like this lack of direction—for the movie or his own character—and walked off the set, never to return. Now Clouzot had to find a new lead and reshoot scenes before they drained the reservoir in a few days.
And that’s when he had a heart attack. The fact that it happened while he was filming two women, Schneider and co-star Dany Carrel, kissing on a boat, is amusing sidenote.
Clouzot lived another 13 years, and made one more film, “La Prisonniere” in 1968, but “L’enfer” was never finished.
What might it have been? Let me state outright that I’m not much of a fan of movies where form overtakes content—as in Clouzot’s delusional scenes—or where, as moviegoers, we see the lead’s problem at the outset (he’s a gambler, he’s an alcoholic, he’s consumed with jealousy), and then watch his slow, inevitable descent. All we’re left to wonder is, “Where’s bottom?” and I want more to wonder than that.
That said, what remains of “L’enfer” looks amazing. It’s the maestro showing the upstarts a few things.
Like Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, the problems with “L’enfer” begin with a tight schedule and end with ill health, but in the middle, rather than the bad weather Gilliam encountered, Clouzot found good fortune. One can imagine him smiling as Columbia executives announced his unlimited budget. One can imagine him saying, “You have no idea how this will change things.”