2009 TIFF Day 1

L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot Inferno (Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea)

The YouTube clip above is tacked on like a coda to Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary, and seeing it in that context is a slightly different experience. By that point we’ve learned the story of Clouzot’s failed efforts to bring to the screen what was to be his masterpiece, L’Enfer, a revolutionary experiment in form inspired in part by Fellini’s 8 1/2. The project was abandoned after endless months of camera tests; after millions of Hollywood dollars were spent; after the film’s lead actor, Serge Reggiani, walked off the film, due either to depression, his exasperation with his director, or some combination of the two; and after, finally, Clouzot himself suffered a heart attack. By way of analogy, imagine if, after all that time in the jungle, Coppola had returned to the States with only 13 hours of exploding forests and Brando’s improvisations. And imagine if that footage had been locked in a legal battle — and locked in a vault — for 45 years, unseen by anyone.

Bromberg and Maedrea tell the story behind the film through fairly dry and conventional means, interviewing members of the crew and filling in the blanks with a written, conversational voiceover. Much more interesting is their splicing together of whole scenes from L’Enfer, based on Clouzot’s 300-page script and notes, the hours of dailies, the one surviving audio recording, and, in several instances, contemporary dramatizations of dialogue that was never filmed. Bromberg and Medrea film their actors (Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin) on a dark soundstage and elicit from them natural and compelling performances, which offers a stark contrast to what we see of Schneider and Reggiani. In principle, it’s an odd device — a kind of anti-Brechtian effect or something — but I enjoyed the acted scenes, as they hint at the human drama on the page that is nowhere to be found in the eye-popping camera tests.

Watching the YouTube clip is also different, coming at the end of the film, because what begins as, quite simply, some of the most beautiful glamour shots ever photographed, becomes, through repetition, a slightly unsettling document of the director-starlet relationship. (It would make an interesting companion to Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg, and to Vertigo and In The City of Sylvia as well.) L’Enfer was to be the story of a middle-aged man whose jealousies over his young wife send him into ecstatic, technicolor fantasies, which Clouzot then films, and we then watch. There’s something — and I hesitate to use this word — pornographic about it all.