Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno,” – A Sexual Revolution Deferred

Romy Schneider suggests something both infernal and paradisiacal when she contracts the muscles of her thighs on a pair of water skis. What she does in bed with a slinky is unmentionable. Had Henri-Georges Clouzot finished “Inferno,” his 1964 project featuring Miss Schneider and Serge Reggiani as her sleep-deprived husband who imagines her making love with all the guests in their hotel, the sexual revolution might have had an earlier moment of inception in the cinema. And that’s not all. The 135 cans of picture negative the director left in the care of his widow reveal experimental tests in color, distortion, and make-up that might have brought on an optical revolution as well. Some of the mirror tricks traced the lines of what Orson Welles had already accomplished in “Lady from Shanghai,” but occasionally Clouzot took the mirror farther than Welles. The results he obtained with water, a mirror, and Miss Schneider’s open mouth could make beanstalks shoot up from an iceberg.

Long before op-art entered the populist mainstream of the psychedelic era, Clouzot, with his rhythmic manipulation of various triangles, was being labeled a specialist of optical coitus by the guys in the art department. “Inferno” would have been one crazy film had it been completed, but the director spent so much time testing experimental techniques that by the time principal photography began, his creativity began to stall, although you can’t tell that from looking at the dailies. But a series of mishaps, including Reggiani’s desertion and culminating with Clouzot’s heart attack, stopped production.

It was 1968 before made his next (and final) feature film, “La prisonnière,” which featured some of the inventive visual style he had planned for “Inferno.” But it came four years too late, after even the most rudimentary of secret agent romps were designed and decorated by paisley-brained art directors, and his particular visions got lost in the morass of celluloid hallucination that defined the era. In 1994. Claude Chabrol bought the script of “Inferno” from Clouzot’s widow and turned it into a perfunctory exercise in domestic violence. Chabrol’s “L’Enfer” was no a bad picture, but when you compare his scenes with the ones Clouzot shot, it is obvious that he didn’t understand what Clouzot was after.

Now, with the documentary “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno,” we learn how the director planned to achieve his goal of communicating the anxiety of the insomniac who is being fragmented by jealousy. Contrasting black and white with color film to create a line of demarcation between rational and hallucinatory points of view, he maintains a sense of realism throughout the psychological rupturing of the protagonist’s point of view. Clouzot’s experiments with water, glass, and shadow yield images of a disturbing fluidity that had in previous films been negotiated with a lesser degree of optical truth through double exposures and other sleights of hand.

Directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea have done a commendable job of organizing the material acquired from Clouzot’s widow. The one questionable move was their decision to film actors reading selections from the script to fill in some of the missing information in the sequences that have been reconstructed. Why use these awkward readings when they could have petitioned Chabrol to let them use scenes from his 1994 adaptation with the excellent performances of Emmanuelle Béart and Francois Cluzet? My guess is they don’t want their audience to know about Chabrol’s film, as they make no mention of it, in order to exaggerate the importance of their own reconstruction of Clouzot’s “lost” film.

“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” would have been stronger had the existence of Chabrol’s film been acknowledged and put to use. It would have been fascinating to see the contrast in the performances of Béart and Schneider. For example, where Schneider’s water-ski sequence is framed in medium shot, her entire body in the frame, Chabrol keeps Béart in a tight close-up emphasizing her face and the upper half of her bikini top. Schneider’s sensuality is built upon subtle gesture, while Béart can barely contain the undulations of her flesh. We also see, in comparing the two films, how intrinsic the optical effects are to the way the audience experiences the husband’s madness. Chabrol’s realistic handling of the material distances the audience from the character, while Clouzot engulfs the audience in a riot of hallucination that enables the audience to feel his anxiety and share his madness.

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