Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009) - Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea

Utterly absorbing documentary about genius French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's unfinished film - Inferno. Clouzot already had a few great films under his belt (Les diaboliques, Le salaire de la peur and Le corbeau) by the time he started work on Inferno in 1964. Marcel (Serge Reggiani) and Odette (Romy Schneider) are a couple who run a lakefront hotel in rural France. Marcel is insanely jealous of Odette and er, that’s about it since after three weeks of filming everything went pear shaped and ground to a halt.

What directors Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea have achieved with their documentary is nothing short of a miracle. First they managed to track down all the film that was shot for Inferno, including screen tests, camera tests and all that sort of thing. Next they convinced Clouzot’s widow to allow them to use that footage in their documentary. Their real ace in the hole though is showing whole chunks of the film cut together with sparse sound effects and actors reading the original dialogue, since the original footage didn’t contain a soundtrack. So rather than just talking about one of cinema’s great lost films with perhaps a few tantalizing stills, we actually get to see roughly what it is we lost out on.

Inferno looks nothing short of stunning, the bulk of it is black & white, but at key moments the footage shifts to really vivid colour. Plus from what's on show here Inferno would have ended up being as trippy as the Stargate sequence in 2001. Lighting set ups that move in a circular motion around the face, lots of mirrors and strange filters. Faces being imposed over one another and at one point a wall of eyes. As I said trippy.

So what went wrong? Well first up Clouzot was a hard person to work for. He was famously cruel to his first wife (Véra) during the making of The Wages of Fear (which she starred in), and I’ve hardly ever heard anyone say he was a joy to work with. So there’s that. Serge Reggiani was a big star back then and walked off of the shoot after three weeks of being screamed at, and being forced to run after a camera car for days on end in the searing heat. So there’s that too. Then there’s the fact that Clouzot was a perfectionist, reshooting scenes that were already deemed perfect by everyone else. Despite the fact that the lake they were shooting around was scheduled to be drained within four weeks. So there was a time factor in there too. The final nail in the coffin came when Clouzot suffered a non fatal heart attack. Effectively calling a halt to the whole shebang.

The saddest thing about this documentary is that we will never get to see the finished film. Unlike other films that were butchered on release but have since been restored to the original glory (The Wicker Man, Metropolis and The Wild Bunch for instance), this documentary is as good as it gets. Bromberg & Medrea score points for getting key people that worked on the film to tell their stories, including Costa-Gavras no less. Now if Peter Bogdanovich could just sort out a decent version of Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind then everything really would be hunky dory.

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