Endless Visions: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

The history of cinema is littered with unfinished grand projects by megalomaniac directors including Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Erich von Stroheim. That Henri-Georges Clouzot should be added to this list seems, at first, surprising. One of France’s greatest directors, he established his reputation with tight, economical, superbly crafted crime thrillers throughout the 40s and 50s. But in 1964, he embarked on the filming of Inferno (L’Enfer), a formally inventive story of obsession and jealousy featuring one of the leading stars of French cinema, the beautiful Romy Schneider, and the craggy-faced Serge Reggiani as her increasingly paranoid husband. It was a big production on a scale unprecedented in French cinema, with huge means provided by the American studio Columbia. After only two and a half weeks of a difficult shoot, Reggiani fell ill, Clouzot had a heart attack and the project was halted. The story of this disastrous production is told in Serge Bromberg’s documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009), made after a chance encounter with the director’s widow, Ines Clouzot, led Bromberg to unearth the 185 cans of unexposed film that had lain dormant in an archive for the past 45 years. The documentary tells the story of ‘a film that wanted to revolutionise cinema’ and it shows Clouzot to be not the old-school craftsman derided by the nouvelle vague, but a bold, risk-taking innovator. Now, the only way to see the extraordinary images of this unfinished masterpiece is in Bromberg’s documentary.

Clouzot’s phenomenal ability to create tension on screen was such that it made Hitchcock tremble for his title of Master of Suspense and the first part of his career shows a supreme command of the classic filmmaking style that rivals that of the maker of Strangers on a Train (1951) – thorough storyboarding, carefully composed shots, elaborate editing. This is best seen in his showbiz-set murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres (1947), the international hit The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953), the superb film noir Les Diaboliques (1955) and the exceptional The Raven (Le Corbeau, 1943), a spectacularly dark study of toxic suspicion and moral decay set in an unidentified small town plagued by anonymous poison pen letters.

Although Clouzot had found public success with those films, he started exploring different directions in the 1950s, starting with the documentary The Picasso Mystery (Le Mystère Picasso, 1956), in which he filmed the artist at work. The following year, he experimented with fiction in Les Espions, an absurdist spy thriller in which the agents no longer know who they are working for in a world where all is illusion and lies. This was followed by The Truth (La Vérité) in 1960, which sees Brigitte Bardot’s Dominique accused of the murder of her lover. During the trial, her life is dissected and interpreted in divergent ways by the prosecution and the defence, constantly changing our perception of her character.[1] Clouzot’s desire for a new kind of filmmaking, the recurrent theme of shifting truths and his interest in other art forms would converge in Inferno a few years later.

By the time Clouzot came to make Inferno, it is clear that he had paid attention to the radical innovations that revolutionised cinema in the 60s. According to director Costa-Gavras, who worked as assistant director on Inferno, Fellini’s 8 ½ had opened up Clouzot’s eyes to new possibilities: it was ‘the birth of a cinema that was something else entirely. L’Enfer for Clouzot was the desire to make another kind of filmmaking’.[2] His vision of the different type of cinema he was searching for was strongly influenced by other art forms. According to another Bromberg interviewee, X, Clouzot was very interested in pictorial and musical pursuits and felt that cinema was behind. The project of Inferno was to ‘elevate’ cinema.[3] For this, he drew in particular from electronic music and the serial work of contemporary composer Pierre Boulez as well as Op Art and kinetic art, more specifically the work of Victor Vasarely and Jean-Pierre Yvaral.

Inspired by the ground-breaking artistic developments of his time, Clouzot started doing tests for Inferno on a scale unheard of in French cinema. He had his team working on unusual special effects, building a rotating wheel to light the actors, devising a complicated colour inversion process and filming an exhibition of kinetic art at the Museum of Decorative Arts. There were make-up experiments involving blue lipstick and olive oil. Electronic music composer Gilbert Amy, an associate of Pierre Boulez, was hired to work on sound. As described in the documentary, the Boulogne studio where the tests took place over several months was buzzing with feverish, if somewhat unfocused activity.

After seeing the initial tests, a handful of Columbia executives gave Clouzot an unlimited budget. This was a unique situation, as Bernard Stora, intern on Inferno, points out: ‘What makes [Inferno] … something rare in cinema, is that the means, the money, weren’t there to have 100,000 horsemen or build huge sets. … It was to give a creative artist, Clouzot in this case, the possibility of freely experimenting, of freely searching, to tame ideas gradually, to see if they came or not.’[4] But combined with Clouzot’s colossal ambitions, his obsessive perfectionism and the lack of a completion date for the project, it was a recipe for a grandiose disaster.

There was an additional difficulty. After months of searching, Clouzot had chosen as his setting a hotel by a lake under the Garabit Viaduct in the Massif Central, a huge railway arch bridge constructed by Gustave Eiffel (itself a madly ambitious, difficult project in its day). The lake had been artificially created and was due to be drained to generate power by the electricity company 20 days later. Clouzot knew this, but wanted no other setting. In order to make sure the exterior shots were completed before the lake was emptied, it was decided to shoot with three crews – again, something French cinema had never known. Clouzot had the best technicians in the industry, the best equipment, and even an old steam train, which the train company put back on the railway line just for him…

Perfectionism, visionary dreams, unlimited means… All was set for an impossible production, an unfinishable film.

‘Prisoner of an idea gone mad’

Bromberg’s documentary tells the story of two parallel obsessions: the failed shoot, narrated through testimonies of Clouzot’s filmmaking crew, and Inferno’s tale of insane jealousy, reconstructed using footage and test images (the missing parts of the story are filled in by scenes of two actors performing the script in a bare setting). It charts the obsessive creation of a work that is possibly the ultimate filmic expression of obsession.

Jealousy and obsession are thematic threads that run through the whole of Clouzot’s work. Quai des Orfèvres features a flirtatious chanteuse and her intensely jealous husband – although the film shows that in spite of her lies and amorous liaisons, she truly loves him. The Raven is spurred to write poison pen letters partly by jealousy. Les Diaboliques is a story of vertiginously twisted marital betrayal while in The Truth Bardot’s character is driven to kill after her lover abandons her for another woman. 

With Inferno, it is as if this theme became more personal and Clouzot’s own obsessive personality converged with that of his character, Marcel. ‘Hell is being prisoner of an idea gone mad that lives in you without you being able to control it. And if jealousy is a prison, perversion is another. So Woman in Chains could have been called Hell [L’Enfer]… I went through many difficult moments of this kind, and like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, I am not ashamed to admit that I am, or rather, I have been successively each of my heroes.’[5] These words were pronounced by Clouzot in 1968 on the occasion of the release of Woman in Chains (La prisonnière), a film that directly followed Inferno and took up many of its themes and visual experiments. And if it is true that Clouzot was each of his heroes in turn, nowhere is this more clearly discernible than in his two final fiction films. While Marcel is almost like a filmmaker in the way he creates visions, Woman in Chains’ art collector Stan is possibly the most personal of all of Clouzot’s characters. In an early scene, Stan is seen giving orders to a crew of protesting assistants as they prepare for an exhibition, as if he was directing on a film set. Strong, domineering, slightly unpleasant, he brutalises people, especially women, in the name of art. He is presented as a failed artist as well as an emotionally repressed man, and both things are connected through his ‘hobby’: making nude photos of women in bondage. If this is really a self-portrait, it is merciless, and for that it is an all the more poignant depiction of the chains that bound Clouzot himself.

By naming his characters Marcel and Odette in Inferno, in reference to Proust, Clouzot instantly indicates the nature of their relationship: a somewhat deluded man infatuated with a sensual, maddeningly unattainable, unknowable object of desire. Marcel’s jealousy is caused by Odette’s relationship with Martineau, the town’s mechanic and local stud (Jean-Claude Bercq), but also with her sassy, sexy hairdresser friend Marylou (Dany Carrel). Who is Odette? A loving, faithful wife or a promiscuous temptress? How can we know for sure? The impossibility to answer that question with any certainty drives Marcel to distraction.

The images of Inferno that appear in Bromberg’s documentary are evidence of a feverish creative effort to find new visual ways of representing obsession. Jealousy distorts Marcel’s perception of reality and the film shifts from the black and white of ordinary life to the colour of his lurid fantasies. Faces are stretched and deformed or cut up into close-ups of eyes, mouths and noses. These are also sometimes multiplied to create an endless, pattern of body parts, their abstract quality contrasting with slight movement or breathing. These strange landscapes of flesh are paralleled by abstract patterns borrowed from Op Art, black and white squares or a black grid on a red background into which the camera zooms in and out, or patterns of white balls moving in and out of black squares. There are also multitudes of faces revolving and the startling image of an eye made of a circle of eyes, turning infinitely. These perpetual movements and endless patterns drag the viewer into the repetitiveness and circularity of obsession.

The zooming in and out of geometrical forms also conveys the idea of being ‘prisoner of an idea gone made’ in another way: in the diseased jealous mind, everything becomes sexual. First assistant operator William Lubtchansky recounts that as cinematographer Andreas Winding was lighting an abstract image of triangles, Clouzot said: ‘No, Andreas, the left thigh should stay in the shadow.’ Lubtchansky concludes: ‘So he really saw something else, something very sexual on something that apparently was not. … I’d become the specialist of optical coitus. He had me zoom in and out, faster and faster … like in coitus, to reach the final orgasm.’

What can be seen of Inferno in Bromberg’s documentary is indeed an extraordinarily sensual, almost tactile film that probes the very texture of desire and jealousy. There is a lot more nudity than in any of Clouzot’s previous films; obviously, this is partly a factor of the more liberated times in which Inferno was made, but it is also as if Clouzot was cinematically discovering the human body, and this gives the film the intensity of a first sexual experience. Romy Schneider is explosively beautiful, emerging from the lake slowly swaying her hips on jet-skis like a triumphant goddess of sex. In other scenes, the olive oil and glitter used as make-up on her face make the golden smoothness of her skin almost palpable. Flesh is contrasted with hard metal: in one of the most magical sequences in the film, Schneider, lying on a bed, makes a metal spring move up and down her body by gently shifting her hips. It is both charmingly playful and incredibly erotic. In another sexually charged scene, she is tied half-naked on the railway as the train speeds towards her, a cloud of white steam jetting from its chimney – which is echoed in the scenes where she blows white cigarette smoke out of her mouth.

Flesh is also contrasted with transparent material that both reveals and conceals the female body. Schneider appears wrapped up in a plastic sheet tied around her neck, as if she was a sweet or a doll (and the shot ends with two hands coming up from behind and strangling her; when the man behind her walks off, it looks like it’s Clouzot himself). Dany Carrel is filmed almost naked underneath a plastic coat, moving her hips suggestively, the camera lovingly capturing the curve of her breast and the undulation of her belly under the plastic. In other scenes, Marcel reaches out to a sleeping Odette, but his hands are stopped by an invisible wall, as if she was under a glass dome. There are also sequences in which a sheet of water drips in front of a shot of Odette and Marcel, or Odette and Martineau, the image washed away, their bodies dissolved in the water. This startling juxtaposition of the desired body with plastic, glass or water creates a terrible sense of longing, a painfully heightened perception of both the body’s utter unattainability and unreality as well as its flesh and physicality.

Inferno constructs a territory of uncertainty: ‘Instability was what we wanted to provoke: the non-visual security of people who look at something and the denial of visual logic,’ says[ lights] Joël Stein. The reality of everything, the ‘truth’ of everyone is questioned. The make-up emphasises the unreliability of how we perceive the characters. The blue-grey make-up gives Schneider an almost malevolent look that contrasts with the softness of her face in the black and white of daily life. The blue lipstick underlines her sensual mouth while making it look like a forbidden, poisonous fruit. There are also shots of faces monstrously made up of halves of two characters’ faces: Odette and Marylou, Marcel and Martineau, but also, more disturbingly, Odette and Martineau and Odette and Marcel. All the combinations are possible, this seems to say: lovers are interchangeable. But worse than that, it suggests that none of the characters’ identity is secure.

Crucial to this atmosphere of instability is the use of light. Before working on Inferno, Clouzot had seen Images du monde visionnaire, made by Henri Michaux and Inferno special effects man Eric Duvivier in 1963. The film was about Michaux’s drug experiences and the hallucinations sequences had so impressed Clouzot that he decided to apply the same filmmaking technique to actors’ faces. This is what gave him the idea of the rotating wheel; it could be made to turn slower or faster and with different colours, and the corresponding modification of the actor’s face conveys the supreme strangeness and unknowability of the other. The light rotating on Schneider animates her face with an alien life, a life that is not hers, changing her expression as well as the impression we have of it as it turns. We see a different nuance, maybe even a different person with every movement of the wheel. This, added to the transparent materials mentioned above, introduces a certain fluidity and slipperiness in the perception of the characters, of Odette in particular: Marcel can never quite grasp her, figuratively and literally.

While the elaborately fashioned visuals are truly exceptional, we learn in Bromberg’s documentary that sound was meant to be as crucial an element in the film, if not more so: according to Gilbert Amy, Clouzot wanted sound to be ‘the mainspring of the film’, and the starting point of images – Marcel’s nightmares are triggered by the train whistle, for instance. Only one sound reel was found, and it suggests that Marcel’s monologues were constructed almost like experimental musical pieces, with the reiteration of words and phrases and the voice distorted as if redoubled, but out of synch by a tiny fraction of second. In one instance, the voice repeats endlessly: ‘I’m not a madman. I’m not a monster or a madman.’ Another section of the monologue exposes the frighteningly twisted logic of the obsessive mind: ‘Well, maybe that arouses you? We play bitchy mama. Hanky-panky, titty-titty, bang-bang, clickory-clock. You bitch! Hell, he’s married. All the more reason to be two-timed. Let him feel her up, stick in things lying around. There’s no risk, it leaves no trace, no fingerprints. Just a kid sometimes, as a souvenir. Wait, bitch. I have my key. You’re gonna get locked up. Double lock. Gotcha, old girl.’

The maniacal torment evident in these lines is made all the more affecting knowing that it is Clouzot’s voice reading them. And just as Marcel ceaselessly replays his fantasies in his head, Clouzot, plagued by insomnia, would rewrite the dialogue at night during the shooting at Garabit, and compulsively re-did scenes that had already been filmed again and again, even as the crew and actors around him were getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of progression, even as the date the lake would be drained neared irremediably.

The Clouzot Mystery

Clouzot’s behaviour on the set seemed so incomprehensible that some of the crew members wondered whether the director really did want to finish the film. Is it possible to imagine that he somewhat perversely headed for incompleteness? Is it that he wanted his film so much to be final, ‘his ultimate achievement’, as Bromberg says, that he could not finish it? Was the weight of his ambition to create a different kind of cinema crippling? By making the scale of the production so enormous but choosing a location with a very finite expiry date, did he more or less unconsciously ensure that the film simply could not be completed?

Or was Clouzot pushing himself to the limit with such a set-up, just like he did with everybody else, to see what would come out of it? His infamous treatment of actors, which involved slapping Suzy Delair and Bernard Blier on the shoot of Quai des Orfèvres for instance, or surreptitiously feeding sleeping pills to Bardot on The Truth, seemed to have been motivated by the desire to get the very best performances out of them: ‘He pushes people to the extreme so that people would either break down or… And if they do, he’s happy and he would say, “Let’s shoot”’, says Catherine Allegret in the documentary. On the shoot of Inferno, he made Serge Reggiani run behind the camera for miles and miles until he was utterly exhausted while Dany Carrel had to repeat a scene in which she got slapped on the bum until she was purple. Is it possible that he applied the same principle to himself, and with Inferno tried to push himself to breaking point to see if he could produce his best work?

Some of the documentary participants remark on Clouzot’s strange indecisiveness on Inferno, which contrasted so strongly with his supreme competence and efficient direction in the early part of his career. This may be because with Inferno Clouzot’s view of the film director seems to have shifted from craftsman to artist. The trigger for this may have been The Picasso Mystery, which probed the mystery of artistic creation. In this unique documentary, Clouzot placed the camera behind a transparent canvas on which Picasso painted so that the screen is equated with the canvas and what we see unfold is the drama of creation, brush stroke after brush stroke. The colour paintings are interspersed with black and white shots of the studio. While the earlier paintings are fairly simple, the later paintings show an extraordinary process of transformation: The Dreaming Woman starts stretched out, but ends up in a crouching position in the finished work. On the Beach No 1 metamorphoses many times as Picasso repeatedly paints over what he’s already done, magically transmuting the figures in a joyous creative explosion. This is an exhilarating conclusion to the film and it unexpectedly prompts the question: when is the work of art finished? This is clearly a central concern for Clouzot: the principle of the film was that all the paintings created by Picasso would be subsequently destroyed, so that they only exist in Clouzot’s film.

In a similar way, Inferno now only exists in Bromberg’s documentary. The documentary is itself the record of an incredible moment of creation and this gives another meaning to the sexual imagery of the film. Watching the images recorded by Bromberg’s documentary feels like being plunged into a bubbling volcano of creative energy on the verge of eruption. It is possible that The Picasso Mystery disturbed Clouzot’s previously held view of what a film and a filmmaker were to such an extent that he no longer knew where the process of creation ended. ‘He had consciously taken the risk of searching but with 100 people around him. Which was a courageous enterprise but an extremely risky one. He deliberately put himself in danger,’ says Stora.

The experiments of Inferno were not entirely lost: they found their way into Woman in Chains. The film’s central female character, Josée, starts an unusual relationship with the gallery director Stan after her sculptor husband sleeps with a journalist following the opening night of a kinetic art exhibition. When Stan shows her his S&M photos, she is both disgusted and attracted by them and she gradually becomes drawn into his world of sexual perversion. The exhibition shows the kinetic art that inspired Inferno, and there are similar images – a curtain of hanging mirror strips, a moving sculpture of hanging balls, coloured abstract patterns, white balls rolling in and out of black squares. Josée discovers Gilbert flirting with a journalist while she is wandering through a maze in the exhibition, the art installation creating a distorted image of her multiplied in a sea of grey, erasing the sense of perspective, recalling Marcel’s distorted view of reality when in a jealous fit. One of the S&M photo shoots involves Dany Carrel girating, half-naked in a plastic coat, while Stan snaps her, faster and faster – a photographic coitus. The astonishing final sequence (which has been described as ‘psychedelic’) shows the nightmares of the comatose Josée, a montage of abstract red and blue squares and brightly coloured images of herself tied up in chains. Obsession is here male and female, and both Josée and Stan are ‘prisoner(s) of an idea gone mad’.

Woman in Chains is a remarkably inventive and daring film, and yet, it is not as satisfying or as madly creative as what remains of Inferno. The dialogue seems strangely stilted, the references to art are too self-conscious. It feels crushingly personal and not quite fully controlled, the balance between the more experimental, purely artistic elements and the narrative not entirely successful. In contrast, Inferno has the quality of the unfinished: it has no filler scenes, no dramatically important but dull sequences; it is a film made only of climaxes. What Bromberg documents is a unique moment of pure creation, which it renders visible. And although this may not have been fully understood by some of Clouzot’s crew, others, such as Stora, got it: ‘He taught me … [that] you have to see your madness to the end… you have to take responsibility to the end. At some point, everyone wonders, “Where is he going? Into a wall”. That’s the moment when you have to keep going.’

[1] The Truth opposes young and old generation but although the film is sympathetic to the youth, it did not stop Clouzot being singled out by the nouvelle vague’s young guns as an example of the antiquated filmmaking they wanted to get rid of. This view of Clouzot has unfortunately shaped the critics’ of his work and may be the reason why he has been unjustly neglected. It is entirely refuted by the spirit of experimentation Clouzot demonstrated in Inferno and its follow-up, Woman in Chains (La Prisonnière, 1968). While the majority of the nouvelle vague filmmakers became increasingly conservative as they got older, Clouzot showed a remarkable willingness to take risks and to experiment in the later part of his career. Ironically, Claude Chabrol’s version of Clouzot’s Inferno, released as Hell (L’Enfer) in 1994, is a blatant example of this: stripped of all of Clouzot’s formal experiments, it is done as a straightforward psychological drama.

[2] Serge Bromberg, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009).

[3] Serge Bromberg, ‘Ils ont vu l’enfer’, extra feature on the DVD of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009).

[4] The translation given in the documentary was altered to reflect Stora’s choice of words more accurately.

[5] Henri-Georges Clouzot in an article by J Baroncelli, Le Monde, 22 November 1968, quoted in Philippe Pilard, H-G Clouzot, , Editions Seghers, 1969, p.108. My translation.

Essay published in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology (Strange Attractor Press, 2011).

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