Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

'Inferno' is a misleading title. The original 'L'Enfer' can be literally translated that way, but it also means 'Hell'. Why would a man who had everything come to feel that he was in Hell? The secret is obsession. A character's obsession with his beautiful wife. A director's obsession with making the perfect film. A documentary team who might be in danger of falling into the same trap.

It starts with fear, paranoia. The filmmaker, who is claustrophobic, recalls the two hours he spent trapped in a lift with Henri-Georges Clouzot's widow. She told him of the man who had made 11 hit films but whose determination to change the face of cinema with his 12th nearly cost him his life. The film centered on a man whose delight in his wife is so great that he becomes terrified of losing her, and so gradually convinces himself that she must be having an affair. Inferno was shot in black and white, but its tragic hero's visions are in colour - colour the like of which had never been seen before.

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Special effects weren't so easy to create back then, surviving crew members explain. When Clouzot wanted to turn a lake blood red, that whole section of film had to be tinted. In order that they might still appear normal, the actors had to be painted green. Once the actors had been painted, the colours started to take over. Clouzot fell in love with the otherwordly appearance of his leading lady. At first glance she reminds one of early Star Trek love interest, but as she sensually exhales - or swallows - smoke, as she slides a purple tongue across her lips, it becomes apparent that she's something quite different. These vivid images are startlingly sensual. Though snippets of Inferno were later incorporated into Clouzot's final film, La Prisonnière, this is the first time that many of them have been available, and they're quite sufficient on their own to make this film a must-see.

Clouzot's self-conscious but still powerful artistry didn't stop there. To convey effectively his hero's gradual mental disintegration, he made use of distorted visuals and distorted sounds, with a cutting-edge soundtrack built around voices which still sounds fresh today. Layered crowd shots create a real sense of confusion but maintain just enough focus to keep the viewer from drawing away. Instead one is intrigued, drawn closer to the image as one struggles to discern what's really going on, drawn further into this infectious obsession.

Clouzot's perfectionism exacted a heavy toll on all involved. His actors were daunted by his demands, though they delivered extraordinary performances. Crew members complained of frequently being woken at 2am when the insomniac director had another idea. Such was the intensity of the operation that it was probably always doomed, but the story of it is fabulously romantic and has clearly had a profound effect on the makers of this film, too. At times, if one did not know better, one would expect the documentary nature of this film to dissolve, to melt into fiction itself, just as Clouzot's vision threatens to brim over into reality. Essential viewing for anyone who is or would like to be involved in making films, this is also a heady experience for the general viewer, highly educational and a sensual delight.

Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2009
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A documentary about the great director Henri-Georges Clouzot and the fabulously innovative film that almost killed him.
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Director: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea

Writer: Serge Bromberg

Starring: Catherine Allégret, Bérénice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin, Serge Reggiani, Romy Schneider

Year: 2009

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France

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