In 1964, director Henri-Georges Clouzot began work on his most ambitious film yet. Set in a beautiful lakeside resort in the Auvergne region of France, L’Enfer (Inferno) was to be a sun-scorched elucidation on the dark depths of jealousy starring Romy Schneider as the harassed wife of a controlling hotel manager (Serge Reggiani). However despite huge expectations, major studio backing and an unlimited budget, three weeks into production it collapsed under the weight of arguments, technical complications and illness.
Cinema is the epitome of “show business”, show inextricably linked with business, and the best films coming out of the inevitable conflict. When you read about the pre-production battles that Francis Ford Coppola had whilst making The Godfather it’s a wonder it was made at all, but at least it was completed. Michael Powell gambled his illustrious career on the misunderstood Peeping Tom and lost. Orson Welles pulled every trick he could to get Citizen Kane exactly the way he wanted, creating arguably the most important film ever made, but never again would he have such freedom. And if we go back even further, legend has it that many of Georges Méliès’ films were melted down to make shoes.
Legend status awaits both the successes and failures, such is the fickle nature of the movies, and so no film appears to be truly lost, no matter what state it is in. There are many champions who refuse to let them stay hidden; Martin Scorsese campaigned for years so that Powell's Peeping Tom would be released properly and Welles’ own detailed memo rescued Touch of Evil from the butchers (Netflix are on the cusp of releasing another).
Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea are also such champions and their marvellous documentary detailing the troubled production of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is released by Arrow Academy this month. Even the story of how the documentary came to be is a stroke of impossible luck, with Bromberg getting stuck in a lift with Clouzot’s widow (I mean, come on, what are the odds?). They had time to discuss the great man’s work and she offered him the cans of film and other raw material from the abandoned production of L’Enfer. All 185 cans of film. It is impossible to put into context how incredible a find this is. Inferno had been lost for 50 years, and perhaps considered irretrievable because it was unfortunately left that way by Clouzot himself.
Usually, the story would unfold that a great director was thwarted by the evil studio who couldn’t appreciate the unique vision that was offered to them; or worse, they had long memories and a spiteful nature to punish the artist for perceived transgressions. But when he embarked on Inferno, Clouzot had no producer. Perhaps if a villainous studio were involved, something would have appeared from the conflict. Be in no doubt, there is no lost masterpiece to be found here. This is one of cinema’s greatest tragedies as Clouzot’s own brilliance consumed him.
Clouzot nevertheless did have his battles. Though silent, he was Alfred Hitchcock’s closest rival, gazumping him on Diabolique and matching the Master of Suspense blow for blow in the superb Wages of Fear. He didn’t have Hitchcock’s appetite for self-promotion though, so he possibly wouldn’t have felt that conflict so keenly if it wasn’t for the general criticism of French cinema by Cahiers du cinéma, the contributors to which would go on to create the French New Wave. Truffaut, in particular, adored Hitchcock’s work and yet perversely seemed dismissive of his fellow countryman’s comparable work, just as Cahiers... were of similarly old-fashioned Jacques Becker. Clouzot also didn’t appear to have Hitchcock’s dubious ability to detach himself on-set. He would be consumed by Inferno.
It is ironic that a perfect storm appeared on the horizon in this twilight of Clouzot’s career. Hitchcock had laid himself bare in the stunning Vertigo, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who had also written Diabolique. Vertigo hadn’t been a huge success at the time, even Truffaut skimmed it (another legend: dismissed at the time, Vertigo has since been re-evaluated to be a Greatest Film Ever contender), so did Clouzot feel he could steal his rival’s thunder, try something similar or even attempt a Fellini’s 8½, and defy the pretentious New Wave all at the same time? If only.
The concept is fascinating because Clouzot worked from his usual tight script while New Wave was priding itself on improvisation. Perhaps success would have confounded the sniffy critics who would have loved to have hated it. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be as Clouzot very quickly lost control of the ambitious production, the schedule and worst of all, lost the loyalty of his baffled cast and crew. The insomniac director set impossible schedules, so they couldn’t even just muck in. More than one film over the years has been rescued by a crew that believe in the project.
Bromberg and Medrea’s incredible film is intoxicating. The 185 cans once opened contained little more than a jigsaw puzzle that required a detailed investigation. Perhaps more like several jigsaws mixed together. Rather than force a conclusion, they somehow pieced them together to speak for themselves, as close to the original vision as possible, even replacing some key missing scenes and dialogue with a new script reading. But there just isn’t enough to pull the original film together and so we also get valuable insight from surviving members of the crew. The respect for Clouzot is undiminished and palpable, even when it’s clear his behaviour on set and decision making had let him down.
A sad story then, but the footprint left behind is extraordinary work, intimating an expressionistic psycho-sex thriller to rival Vertigo, and I don’t say that lightly. “Optical coitus”, as one contributor to the documentary memorably suggested. The black and white scenes have a luxurious, indulgent quality, even more so than Clouzot’s earlier films. The colour experimental footage, including fascinating lighting techniques by Andréas Winding and Armand Thirard, suggested something nightmarish. Clouzot had done nothing quite like it before. Well, perhaps a little in the Mystery of Picasso.
It’s such a shame Clouzot was so private and slow that it crippled the production and infuriated his cast to such a degree that Serge Reggaiani finally walked off. He was a giant of French cinema and clearly invested himself fully in the role, but the treatment he received during shooting was unforgivable. Romy Schneider too was a great star and seems to have been more tolerant of Clouzot, but as for the rest of the crew, they were losing patience as it was clear that only one person knew the path through the labyrinthine script. There is even footage included here that has no reference to the shooting script; you have to remind yourself, this is the man that brought us Wages of Fear.
A failure was inevitable even before life caught up with Henri-Georges and he suffered a heart attack. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, but the collapsed production would haunt him for the rest of his life. The spiral out of control had matched Inferno’s plot and we’ll never fully understand why. The documentary is a spellbinding fever dream, an enigmatic tribute to the man’s film-that-never-was, tantalisingly out of reach and it doubles as a tribute to the irresistible insanity that all great directors willingly challenge to pull off truly brilliant work. The contrast between artist and director is not always a reliable one.
We and Clouzot’s still saddened collaborators can feel only compassion for him. Was he ever really capable of tackling this? Impossible to say, he at least has the intriguing and contradictory last word in Serge and Ruxandra’s film. Clouzot missed it by a sizable margin and it cost him dear, but his glorious effort is inspiring nonetheless.
The main feature puts effort into creating a singular mood and the narrative builds accordingly, funny, teasing and tragic in equal measure. But this was after all an investigation, so there is plenty of other material to flesh out just what happened back then.
Lucy Mazdon on Henri-Georges Clouzot and Inferno (22m) - discusses Clouzot’s career overall and Inferno’s place within it; that he was a European director looking back as well as forwards.
Introduction by Serge Bromberg (9m) - infectiously enthusiastic, Serge builds up the legend of the film and how effective the documentary is at putting us on-set, after sourcing material from around the world.
They Saw Inferno (60m) - excellent collection of anecdotes from those interviewed for the main feature.
Interview with Serge Bromberg (18m) - Serge in more detail explains the synopsis of Inferno.
Original Trailer (2m)
This is an excellent 1080p presentation by Arrow. All the elements, even the aged contents of those many film cans, look pristine. Quality does shift depending on source, but skews high, more than you might expect for lost footage. Ratio is typically 1.85:1, but again, can alter due to source. We have a mix of mono rushes, colour experiments and modern TV style scenes of interviews and new actors playing scenes to fill gaps.