Combustible Celluloid
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With: Romy Schneider, Serge Reggiani, Bérénice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin, Gilbert Amy, Jacques Douy, Jean-Louis Ducarme, Costa-Gavras, William Lubtchansky, Thi Lan Nguyen, Joël Stein, Bernard Stora, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Serge Bromberg
Directed by: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/19/2009

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Back to Hell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This documentary made its U.S. premiere at the 2009 New York Film Festival, made some festival and arthouse rounds in 2010, and finally had a San Francisco opening in 2011. It began, ostensibly, when film archivist Serge Bromberg found himself stuck in an elevator with Henri-Georges Clouzot's widow, and she told him about the late director's ordeal shooting L'Enfer (Inferno, or Hell) in the mid-1960s. The new documentary unveils lots of amazing-looking footage for the first time, as well as interviewing some of the surviving players.

Clouzot (1907-1977) was a popular director known in some circles as the "French Hitchcock." His best-known films include Quai des Orfèvres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953), Diabolique (1955), and The Mystery of Picasso (1956). Inspired by the new directions that cinema was headed in the 1960s, as with films like Fellini's 8 ½ (1963), Clouzot had the idea to move his own career in the direction of the New Wave. He cooked up a script about a jealous husband and began to experiment with ways to visually illustrate this emotion: whirling light sources, weird color palettes, and other striking angles.

The gorgeous Romy Schneider (also in Orson Welles' The Trial) was cast as the wife -- she submitted to hours upon hours of tests -- and Serge Reggiani (La Ronde, Casque d'or) plays the husband. (Very little of the movie's audio actually exists, though we know from one recording that Clouzot planned to experiment in that arena as well.) To help fill in the blanks, Bromberg and his co-director Ruxandra Medrea cast two new actors (Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin) to read the script on-camera, like a play.

More so than the story of the movie, though, this is the story of how Clouzot lost his mind. His cast and crew talk about him, and verify each other's stories; he was an insomniac and insisted upon waking everyone up in the middle of the night. He was such an obsessive perfectionist, that he would keep most of his several camera crews waiting all day. He wasted tons of money. He ignored warnings and time limits. Finally, he could no longer take it; the production shut down, but what really shut down was Clouzot himself.

The documentary makes Clouzot out to be a much more important filmmaker than he actually was, which is a mistake. A bit more honesty might go further in describing his character, a Salieri-like soul who longed for greatness but was unable to reach it. The film also does not mention the fact that Claude Chabrol -- another "French Hitchcock" -- actually filmed Clouzot's script in 1994, with Emmanuelle Beart and Francois Cluzet. I like Chabrol's film, but it's one of his most minor efforts; he pays tribute to Clouzot with an unresolved, open-ended finale.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is the first theatrical release by Flicker Alley, which has previously released a several remastered silent films on great new DVDs. I expect the Infnero DVD (and Blu-Ray?) will be something to look forward to.

Update: One of my favorite distributors, Flicker Alley, has released a DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack, which really showcases Clouzot's color footage. It comes with an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary (a behind-the-scenes documentary for a behind-the-scenes documentary). It also includes an image gallery and an introduction by director Bromberg.

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