It has been a long time coming, but the films made by French master director Henri-Georges Clouzot in the later part of his career are finally getting some attention. For decades, the general critical consensus has been that he made his best work in the 1940s-50s, with Le corbeau (1943), Quai des orfèvres (1947), Le salaire de la peur (1953) and Les diaboliques (1955), and that by the end of the 1950s, his considerable talent was on the wane. Like Alfred Hitchcock, to whom he has often been compared, Clouzot had a supreme command of filmic narrative, atmosphere and tension, and this led to his consecration as a consummate craftsman. That image, however, is inaccurate and reductive, and it contributed to the unfair dismissal of his later work by both mainstream and nouvelle vague critics. Clouzot was also an innovator who was not afraid to put himself at risk and demonstrated an uncommon willingness to experiment at the end of his life.
The audacious, searching streak that would flourish so spectacularly later on was there throughout his work. After the award-winning crime thriller Quai des orfèvres, he chose to adapt an 18th-century novel, which he relocated to the immediate post-war period. Not only did Manon (1949) inventively revisit a classic tale of destructive passion, but it also denounced the disturbing excesses of the Liberation period, which, considering the opprobrium Le corbeau had earned Clouzot, took some courage. After unconvincingly trying his hand at light-hearted comedy with Miquette et sa mère (1950), Clouzot continued to explore with Le salaire de la peur. An experiment in existential tension, it was wildly ambitious, both in its atypical narrative structure, and in its challenging, dangerous production. Although Les diaboliques returned to the familiar thriller genre and a more manageable set-up, it too broke new ground by incorporating elements of supernatural horror within a realistic crime story.
While Clouzot was shooting Le salaire de la peur he met Pablo Picasso at a bull fight in Nîmes, and the seeds of a collaboration were sown. The result was the unconventional art documentary Le mystère Picasso (1956). Clouzot was interested in showing the workings of the painter’s mind, the very process of creation, and to that aim, he filmed Picasso painting on a transparent surface. We see drawings and paintings magically appear on the screen, stroke by stroke, constantly transforming as layer upon layer succeed one another. The Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts had already used a similar device in his 1950 short film Visite à Picasso, but Clouzot incorporated the idea into a double investigation of the creative process, filmic and painterly. In an added twist, all the works made by Picasso during the shoot were subsequently destroyed so that they only exist in Clouzot’s film. The documentary shows artistic creation to be fragile, always at risk of failing, of doing too much, or too little. From the avant-garde virtuoso, the ultra-controlling French Master of Suspense learned that a work of art is never finished, but rather a constant process of transmutation.
Making this documentary clearly led Clouzot to think about his own creative process more intensely. Before these reflections bloomed into the bold experimentation of his later years, Clouzot made two films that were more subtly singular. Les espions (1957) is an absurdist spy story that integrates elements from his previous films and subverts the simple moral dichotomy of the Cold War. Its offbeat disillusionment proved unpopular, but it was followed by a big box office hit, which has been inexplicably neglected, considering it stars Brigitte Bardot in one of her best performances. Recently restored, La vérité (1960) was screened at last year’s London Film Festival and there is hope of a future home entertainment release. An elaborate courtroom drama drawing on Bardot’s personal difficulties and the pressures of her exceptional fame, it is a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of contemporary society, which vilified and idolised the star in equally excessive measure. Pitching the free-spirited, sexually liberated youth that Bardot represented against the repressive double standards of patriarchal authorities, Clouzot moved into the territory of the nouvelle vague, revealing the unsettling social dynamics under the fresh-faced insouciance of the young generation with customary ferociousness.
Seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ in 1963 was the trigger that fully unleashed Clouzot’s artistic ambitions. He became interested in making another kind of cinema, more radical and formally daring, on a par with the contemporary experiments seen in other art forms. With so many public and critical successes behind him, he was given an unlimited budget by the American studio Columbia and cast one of the most cherished stars of French cinema, Romy Schneider, in the lead role. Work began on L’enfer, in which Schneider was the young wife of an increasingly jealous older man. The theme was once more obsessive love, but this time Clouzot approached it through a series of abstract visual and sonic experiments. Mixing colour with black and white, he drew on op art and kinetic art, particularly the work of Yvaral and Vasarely, and commissioned a score from serial composer Gilbert Amy. But ill health, fraught relations on the set, the director’s indecisiveness, the absence of a deadline, the huge scale of the production and a location with an expiry date meant that the project had to be abandoned. All that remains of this megalomaniac adventure are extraordinary fragments: candy-coloured faces, shimmering flesh, revolving wheels of light, intricately designed paranoid delirium. They survive only in Inferno, the documentary that Serge Bromberg made in 2009 after a chance encounter with Clouzot’s widow led to the recovery of 185 cans of film that had remained untouched for 45 years.
Many of these experiments were reused in La prisonnière (1968), Clouzot’s final film and his first shot entirely in colour. Thematically too, there is a strong continuity between the two films. An exhibition of kinetic art serves as a background for the sado-masochistic relationship that develops between Stan, a cold, domineering art gallery owner, and Josée, the sensual girlfriend of one of his artists. Simultaneously investigating art and love, the film establishes a parallel between the creative process and male/female power games, identifying voyeurism as a key to both. The dynamics of desire are correlated with the abstract patterns and repetitive movements of op art, creating an emotional and artistic maze of obsession that culminates in a spectacular psychedelic climax.
In keeping with the times, La prisonnière is about sexual liberation, but as in La vérité, Clouzot offers a complex take on a modish contemporary topic. The main characters try to free themselves from ‘bourgeois’ conventions or their own repression, but find only more entanglement. In dealing with their conflicting desires, La prisonnière gets caught up in contradictions of its own: while the film’s sympathy lies with the aspiration to meaningful love, it is also clearly seduced by the dark allure of sexual domination. This ambiguous narrative of control and surrender is also the closest the director came to a self-portrait, in the unflattering depiction of Stan. At the age of 61, he was exploring new forms to express the troubling truths about the human soul he had confronted throughout his work, and this time it was unprecedently revealing. Clouzot’s swansong was not only his most formally adventurous, it was also his most agonizingly personal.
Disc: It is hugely exciting to see La prisonnière finally released in the UK by StudioCanal, in a glorious 4K restoration and with a great featurette on lead actress Elisabeth Wiener. The stunning visual experiments of Inferno are worth seeing on the Arrow high-definition Blu-ray and The Mystery of Picasso release includes Paul Haesaerts’s A Visit to Picasso as well as Man Ray’s 1937 short La Garoupe, featuring Picasso.
Review published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 28, no. 4 (April 2018).
Picture credit: La prisonnière (Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1968).