No doubt Henri-Georges Clouzot chafed at being dubbed “The French Hitchcock” no matter how many singular films he made. I consider Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfevres superior to his more famous The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques, but they are all the unique creations of an artist obsessed with painstakingly depicting the social conditions that cause inhuman cruelty; in this regard he’s more a precursor to Kubrick than a Gallic Hitch. Despite his success in the ’40s and ’50s, he was decried as an impersonal, studio-bound control freak by the freewheeling Nouvelle Vague auterists.
Once Fellini dropped his ingenious cinematic ego-trip 8 ½, Clouzot was incited to show the world that he, too, could reinvent the cinema. The result was Inferno, a train-wreck of a production that was never completed and drove Clouzot to a heart attack. Forty-five years later, French film preservationist Serge Bromberg, with the help of Ruxandra Medrea, retrieved the surviving, soundtrack-less reels from Clouzot’s widow, alternating them with anecdotes from surviving crew members to delve into the mystery of the might-have-been masterpiece.
The footage is brilliant, bewildering, and very unsettling: lights spinning in a woman’s pupils, distortion effects that achieve hologram textures, and mid-century European superstar Romy Schneider barebreasted and tied to tracks before an oncoming train. There seem to be miles of test footage subjecting leads Schneider and Serge Reggianni to an endless array of makeup and lighting effects; in one test shot, Schneider blinks and flinches in pain from the light. One facial superimposition effect scoops Bergman’s Persona by a few years, while other camera tricks seem like ’60s updates of what surrealists like Man Ray were doing in the ’20s. One crew member jokes that Clouzot, by insisting on zooming in and out repeatedly, instituted the “optical coitus” effect. But on the whole, his experiments were a bold new effort to sculpt and distort human vision.
Equally fascinating are the notes and storyboards Clouzot incessantly sketched. His precise understanding of camera angles and focal lengths comes through when his storyboards match perfectly with the actual shots. For Inferno, he pushed his scientific mapping approach further into sound, writing dialogue with complicated musical and phonetic notations to convey their aural effect. It doesn’t seem like he spent nearly as much time on the actual words; performed by contemporary actors, the scenario comes off as a trite story of male jealousy. Bromberg and Medrea’s attempts to edit entire sequences out of the footage, with voice dubbing and foley effects give a not fully satisfying approximation of what might have been; if Clouzot wasn’t satisfied with what he had, Bromberg and Medrea’s Frankenstein interventions aren’t likely to be much better.
Fortunately, the directors’ assiduous behind-the-scenes storytelling gives a satisfying and disturbing glimpse at how one man’s obsessive, perfectionist drive to break new ground created a living nightmare for him and his crew, with several cans of film left to show for the effort. But whichever one of them has that incredible shot of Schneider waterskiing, gyrating her hips while smiling through indigo lips, is worth its weight in gold.