When filmmaker Serge Bromberg found himself stuck in a lift with the widow of Henri-Georges Clouzot, he learned of a lost cinematic treasure not seen by a wider audience: footage of the incomplete 1964 would-be masterpiece, L’Enfer.

Almost 50 years and 185 cans of film later, the director of The Wages of Fear and Diabolique returns posthumously to the cinema via this fascinating investigation into the staging of an ill-fated production. Inferno was to be an exploration of jealousy and madness – a theme that sadly came to mirror Clouzot’s own deteriorating state of mind, as the production disintegrated around him.

4
A superb documentary about a notorious film that floundered in the mid-1960s.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Quick: Name the movie in which a young Romy Schneider stretched out in bed allows the metal coils of a Slinky to have their erotic way with her crotch. It's a trick question because nobody's seen the footage in question – until now.

Film archivist and historian Serge Bromberg tells the hard-to-top true story of a near-fatal case of completion anxiety in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a riveting documentary about the aborted mid-1960s shoot of L'Enfer – the French term for hell.

Bromberg, a tireless champion of lost films whose firm Loster Films manages thousands of rescued shorts and features, got stuck in an elevator in Paris two years ago with a woman who turned out to be Ines Clouzot, the widow of the director of such suspense classics as The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques.

Suffering from claustrophobia but happy to be a literally captive audience, Bromberg listened as Madame Clouzot explained that her late husband's greatest regret (he died in 1977) was never to have finished L'Enfer, his study of the compulsive nature of clinical jealousy starring Romy Schneider, age 26, and Serge Reggiani, age 42.

After nearly 50 years, 185 cans of film (13 hours) long thought lost resurfaced. Although the extensive rushes, costume tests and pure kinetic experiments have survived in both black and white and color, the sound reels have, alas, been lost. Interjecting contemporary interviews with surviving members of the crew, all of whom have gone on to notable careers in the movies, Bromberg shapes choice segments of Clouzot's frankly sensual, Op and Pop Art inflected footage into a sterling account of a rudderless, open-ended shoot that exasperated everyone involved and nearly killed its director.

Clouzot, who was afflicted with the physical malady of insomnia felt that nobody had ever truly depicted the physical anguish of jealousy in a film.

Clouzot's previous film, four years prior, had been La Verité starring Brigitte Bardot. Having worked in modest settings, he set up his production offices for L'Enfer in a suite at the George V hotel, an extravagance that was carried over into every aspect of the production.

Clouzot and his staff made meticulous sketches of the eventual framing of each shot and the focal length needed to achieve the desired effect. Bromberg matches up these evocative storyboards with the corresponding footage, when possible. The doc functions beautifully as a testament to just how much preparation goes into making a movie.

The newly formed ORTF – early French television – dispatched a crew to film Clouzot at work in Paris and the report is a model of straightforward, informative visual reporting. What jumps out at the viewer is the rigor in the midst of chaos, the sheer volume of talent and technical expertise marshaled and then squandered.

Clouzot wanted to enhance the portrayal of jealousy through inventive sound design, 30 minutes of which survive. The sine waves of mental torture were plotted out on graph paper. Schneider and Reggiani start out as happy newlyweds who soon have a baby and who run a hotel together on a scenic lake. Reggiani's character begins to hear voices and suspects his devoted if vivacious wife of having an affair with a hunky garage mechanic.

Choice scenes from the script – made into a finished film in 1994 by Claude Chabrol with Emmanuelle Beart and François Cluzet – are read on a bare set by Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin. It's a smart move that gives greater resonance to the footage that survives.

In March of 1964 the cast and crew went to the Boulogne Studios just outside Paris for "a few days" of tests that stretched out into months. But the attempts to innovate, to find visual equivalents for states of mind through distortion and other techniques so impressed key executives from Columbia Pictures that they authorised "unlimited footage." The waste all expanded from there. The tests ended in June.

Normal life was depicted in black and white with vibrant colour reserved for altered states and lurid fantasies.

The first shot of the actual film was captured on July 6, 1964 with the production slated for 4 weeks of location shooting, using a real hotel on a real lake. In a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up development, the lake was scheduled to be drained by France's electricity company 20 days after photography began. If Clouzot didn't get what he needed on time, the continuity would never work in another location however scenic.

Clouzot had three complete camera crews with top-notch lighting cameramen and camera operators (including Claude Renoir) at his disposal, but these skilled craftsmen received little direction as to how to spend their time. Clouzot got bogged down in strange details and ran his leading man ragged forcing him to run for hours in the hot sun at a distance where a stand-in could have been used.

On July 20th Reggiani left the set, never to return. Things went downhill from there.

One can well understand why Clouzot might have spent his remaining years kicking himself: the aborted work on display here brims with promise. Schneider enjoyed an enviable career with outstanding directors, but there's a palpable sense of loss of what might have been seeing her captured here in the full spontaneous bloom of youth.

There's a long tradition of badmouthing producers, but a strong producer is obviously what the ill-fated production lacked.

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1 hour 34 min

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