Fire Starter

Graham Fuller on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Serge Bromberg and Ruxanda Medrea Annonier, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film, 102 minutes.

THE DAZZLING DOCUMENTARY Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno was conceived when the film preservationist Serge Bromberg was stuck in an elevator for two hours with Inès Clouzot, widow of the legendary French auteur (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques). She told Bromberg that 185 cans of film—fifteen hours—existed from the project Clouzot had begun in July 1964. Inferno had been granted an unlimited budget by Columbia, but it was aborted after two and a half weeks of the eighteen-week shoot, when Clouzot had a heart attack.

Bromberg and codirector Ruxandra Medrea Annonier sifted through the tantalizingly silent footage—including costume tests, experiments in color inversion, and black-and-white scenes shot beside Eiffel’s Garabit Viaduct, across which express trains ominously thunder—and interviewed Clouzot’s surviving collaborators, among them Costa-Gavras, who had been an assistant director. They also had actors assume the roles of the original leads, Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, to read from the script, which concerns a hotelier, Marcel, who’s haunted by the suspicion that his beautiful young wife, Odette, is sleeping with a rakish mechanic and his sexy gal pal. (Claude Chabrol leadenly filmed the story in 1993.)

Stoking the Inferno myth rather than deconstructing it, the documentary’s investigative work goes only so far—Clouzot was struck by uncharacteristic indecision, Reggiani mistrusted him, the three camera crews didn’t know what they were doing—but the images the great director created are revelatory. Influenced by Op art and making use of stroboscopes, many of the visuals are proto-psychedelic valentines to the fabulously sensual Schneider—slick with olive oil or sparkling with glitter as she flirts with the camera, inhaling and exhaling cigarette smoke, laughing with erotic abandon as she pours water into a glass, being strangled beneath cellophane wrap. (In a black-and-white shot that suggests a Buñuelian gloss on The Perils of Pauline, Odette lies roped and naked on the railroad track as a locomotive speeds toward her.)

Gorgeous though they are as a record of Schneider’s hypnotic allure, in context Marcel’s imaginings are poisonously sadomasochistic. They are emblems of “visual non-security,” their colors the “improbable colors of madness.” They augur the rapid-fire dream sequence in Clouzot’s perverse 1968 La Prisonnière, which like his rancid showbiz noir Quai des Orfèvres is ignited by sexual jealousy. In an excerpt from an old TV interview dabbed in by Bromberg and Medrea Annonier, Clouzot pointedly denies he was pathologically motivated, yet the stain of paranoia is all over Inferno—a tragically abandoned masterwork to rank alongside Josef von Sternberg’s I, Claudius.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno opens at the IFC Center in New York on July 16. For more details, click here.