I've become a big fan of Henri-Georges Clouzot's films this year, having never seen any of his films until only a few months ago when i bought a fantastic box-set containing the classics Quai Des Orfèvres, The Wages Of Fear, and Diabolique. And it was all thanks to the release of a new documentary by film historian Serge Bomberg, chronicling the making of his ill-fated movie L'Enfer.
In the mid 20th Century, Henri-Georges Clouzot could claim to be amongst the greatest filmmakers of his time, but the rise of the French new wave of filmmakers was a timely reminder to Clouzot to embark on a new film which would silence the young upstarts. Clouzot was one of the few directors of his time who could make whatever he wanted to, although it wasn't a Hollywood production as such, L'Enfer was backed by Columbia and he was given the green light to shoot whatever he wanted with an unlimited budget.
L'Enfer is a simple enough, a story of a married man's paranoid obsession with his wife's supposed infidelities. It wasn't a big production, 2 A-list leads in Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani were hired along with a small cast, shot on location, but Clouzot decided to expand upon the visual experiments he'd been working on with his crew. The documentary is filled with never-seen footage not only of the unfinished film, but various screen tests, and countless technical experiments. Clouzot wanted to create a new film language based on the sonic and visual art of the period, used to illustrate the husbands paranoid meltdown.
Many months were spent on sound and visual experiments, until eventually the actual production began. Clouzot experimented with 3 crews and he even enlisted the best directors available, when normally he'd shoot everything himself with his own crew. This caused great confusion, as Clouzot still wanted complete directorial control so at any moment there were always 2 sets of crews waiting to be instructed by him! Clouzot was known for exacting every inch out of his actors and it was the case with Schneider and Reggiani, the latter eventually left and never returned. In the end, Clouzot had a heart attack and the film was never completed.
So what could possibly have been one of the most dazzling films of all time will remain forever incomplete. Serge Bomberg is a restoration specialist, his preservation company Lobster Films holds more than 20,000 endangered films. Having access to about 15 hours of film footage, Bomberg painstakingly pieces together a wonderful documentary offering the audiences a glimpse of what might have been, and insights into why it all went wrong. Bomberg interviews collaborators on L'Enfer, such as actress Catherine Allégret and director Costa-Gavras who was an assistant on the film.
But what defines this documentary is not the reconstruction of the story or insights into why the production failed, but Clouzot's ambitious vision for his film by using artistic techniques such as such as op art and electro-acoustic music. He devised unique filming techniques such as colour inversion. Clouzot dazzles the viewer with psychedelic visions of the film's star Romy Schneider, in many unforgettable scenes including being coated in olive oil and glitter.
I'm not sure why Bomberg used scenes of contemporary actors performing key moments from the original film, it was unnecessary when the story of the film's demise and the existing footage kept you interested. The documentary has a wonderful jazz score to accompany the film, as the original shots never had any sound.
It's difficult not to think of other filmmakers who's films were plagued with problems, such as the infamous shooting of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', and Terry Gilliams doomed project 'Don Quixote' which he turned into the documentary 'Lost in La Mancha'. Clouzot was the undoing of his own film, in fact he was responsible for 3 other unfinished projects (not mentioned in the documentary) in his long career. He was a notorious insomniac, Clouzot would hound his crew in the early hours, who were all basically on call to do as he pleases. One of the film's collaborators mentioned he'd booked into a nearby hotel far enough so that he wouldn't be bothered by Clouzot!
We'll never know if the final cut would have been the new vision of film that Clouzot dreamed of, but thanks to this documentary its safe to say that L'Enfer would have looked like no other film ever made.