Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

| February 9, 2018

The history of cinema is dotted with lost and unfinished films that inspire impassioned debate among hardcore cinephiles. Orson Welles’s original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons has achieved mythical status, and Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune took a deep dive on one of the most famous unrealized film projects of the 70s, detailing the enormous amount of work that went into the film’s pre-production before the project was abandoned. Landing somewhere in between the states of these two famous lost and unfinished projects is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno. Clouzot’s reputation as a director had been cemented by the 1960s with a career including highly-regarded classics such as Quai des Orfèvres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953), and Diabolique (1955). In 1964, Clouzot planned a wildly ambitious production and actually shot for three weeks before the project collapsed. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno details the history of the doomed production, which looks like it could have been revolutionary in mainstream 60s cinema.

In 1960, Clouzot had made a film with Brigitte Bardo entitled The Truth that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards. While devising his next project, American studios expressed interest in providing financial backing. Clouzot and his collaborators began compiling a library of camera and image tests, borrowing techniques from experimental film and innovating with wild approaches to lighting and color. According to one interviewee in the film, after the American studio reps saw his tests, they literally gave Clouzot carte blanche to make of his film whatever he wanted on his own terms. For what was admittedly a relatively simple story confined to a small number of locations, Clouzot and the film’s producers devised an ambitious system with three separate full-time crews filming. While this was supposed to cut down on the time for the shoot, it instead introduced a myriad of other problems. Clouzot pushed himself and his crew well past their breaking point, eventually resulting in the departure of lead actor Serge Reggiani and finally a heart attack for Clouzot himself.

Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary speaks with a number of people who were involved in the production of Inferno to get a picture of just what went wrong. Additionally, Clouzot’s widow Inès allowed the filmmakers access to all of the footage shot for Inferno. The film displays a number of clips from Clouzot’s camera tests, many of which are utterly dazzling. At one point it is mentioned that the script for Inferno ran some 300 pages, and one interviewee points out that none of the footage shot for these tests had any bearing on what was in the script. On the surface Inferno was a relatively straightforward tale of jealousy: Marcel (Reggiani), a middle-aged man, marries Odette (Romy Scheinder), a woman in her 20s, and imagines her cheating on him with both men and women. The “real” day-to-day events of the story would be presented in black & white, but Marcel’s fantasies and nightmares were to be depicted in color. And not just in color, but in phantasmagoric imagery the likes of which had barely been imagined in narrative cinema of the day.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno presents the film in a beautiful high-definition transfer that does justice to the mesmerizing test footage. The disc also includes a nearly hour-long “featurette” entitled They Saw Inferno, which is basically another full hour of the documentary showing even more test footage and discussing more details of the production. All of the interview subjects from the feature reappear, going further in depth on their own experiences with Clouzot and Inferno. Anyone who finds the main feature to be fascinating will be delighted to have so much more material to explore in this featurette. Other special features on the disc include an 18-minute discussion with French cinema expert Lucy Mazdon about Clouzot and Inferno, an introduction and a filmed interview with co-director Serge Bromberg, and a gallery of stills from the production. As always, Arrow also gives the film a beautiful package with a reversible sleeve (featuring art by Twins of Evil) and the first printing of this release includes an illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Ginette Vincendeau. It’s a spectacular presentation of a great documentary on a singularly compelling footnote in film history.

Arrow Academy released Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Blu-ray 6 February 2018.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
Filed in: Film, Video and DVD
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