Everything seems idyllic for Paul (François Cluzet) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart). Recently married, their first child has just been born and they are running a successful lakeside hotel with a large number of regular guests, who find it a pleasant and relaxing retreat. However Paul, suspecting that Nelly is being unfaithful to him, starts following her and watching her movements, seeing betrayal in every look and word she exchanges with their guests. As his behaviour becomes more extreme, exacerbated by an addiction to sleeping pills, his jealousy becomes more physical, threatening not only Nelly, but the tranquillity of the resort and the success of his business.
The script for L’Enfer (Hell) was written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear, but although he attempted to film a few scenes, the film was abandoned and never made. After his death, the script was given to Claude Chabrol, and it is hard to imagine another director more perfectly attuned for this type of material.
Chabrol is often compared to Hitchcock and there is certainly some common ground in the subjects and the material they work with. Their methods and approach however, are quite different. Chabrol directs L’Enfer with customary flair and style, using dark scenes to contrast the emotional confusion of Paul with the brightly lit vibrancy and carefree ease of Nelly. Contrast, for example Nelly, head back, laughing in the sunshine on water-skis, with Paul following her through a darkly shadowed wood, trying to spy on her. There are many such tricks here, but most barely register except on a subliminal level (the buzzing of insects being another indication into Paul’s state of mind). Chabrol comments on these techniques in the selected scene commentary, one of the extras on this DVD.
Another trick, that Chabrol doesn’t refer to directly in the commentary, is the use of splitting frames – two subjects are in the same frame with two points of focus. (Click on the thumbnails below for a larger image). Paul is often seen in darkness, while the other half of the frame is more brightly lit – corresponding to Paul’s reality being different for the reality of the other person in the frame. Images such as this enforce Paul's separation - boxed-in and cut-off from what is going on around him.
The idea is to keep up the suspense, keep the viewer wondering how much of what they are seeing is from Paul’s twisted and tortured mind and whether his suspicions have any foundation at all in reality. Béart is superb – disarmingly innocent and at the same time beautiful, flirtatious and charming. Cluzet is also excellent, presenting menace and danger - his loss of confidence in what he witnesses and his fevered confusion is convincingly portrayed.
Second Sight have repackaged the excellent MK2 French release of the film (reviewed here on DVDTimes by Mark Boydell), with the same selection of the extras, giving them the benefit of English subtitles. Second Sight have also just released the intensely dramatic Un Coeur En Hiver, also starring Emmanuelle Béart.
The picture quality is pretty good, 1.66:1 anamorphic on a dual-layer disc. There are some signs of a fine grain, but this is only ever visible when there is panning or movement on the screen. Contrast is good and blacks are strong, with scenes in darkened rooms showing up plenty of detail. Colours look slightly on the dull side and there is some discolouration, but overall the picture quality is very impressive indeed.
The sound is not quite so impressive. It retains the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack, but there is quite a bit of hiss audible and not a great deal of clarity, but there are no real problems and it is certainly more than adequate.
English subtitles are available. They are not fixed on the print, but at the same time there is no option for removing them. They are machine generated though, as they are not visible when the DVD is played in fast forward, and they can go out of sync if you mess about with the fast-forwarding and pausing too much. However they are clear and translate well.
Claude Chabrol commentary (37.54)
The director provides a commentary for 3 key scenes in the film. The aforementioned sequence leading up to the waterskiing scene, the amateur film screening and aftermath (which shows influence of the rapid montage fantasy sequences attempted by Clouzot), and the final scene. Chabrol doesn’t explain the scenes – their impact is fully realised without any clarification being necessary – rather he draws attention to the importance of these particular scenes and the way they are depicted.
Claude Chabrol Interview (11.17)
Not so much an interview as a monologue by the director. He talks about how he came upon the script and how he developed it. Clouzot had much more experimental ideas for representing the inner state of Paul’s mind, but Chabrol found a different way to approach the subject, structuring and playing with the passing of time, which leads to the very successful and clever slow-down into infinite time at the end of the film.
A short introduction to the film by Joël Magny covering the history of the film script and an examination of the characters and themes of the film.
L’Enfer is a brilliantly structured and almost unbearably suspenseful drama from the master of French thrillers, with strong performances from both Emmanuelle Béart and François Cluzet. The DVD is well presented with a useful selection of extras material.