It is rare for a film which was never completed and released to continue to be discussed decades later, yet there are examples; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune is unlikely to ever exist beyond the documentary chronicling the lengthy pre-production process, and for the longest time it seemed that Lost in La Mancha would be the only record of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, now finally completed seventeen years after the seemingly cursed production began.
Within this elite and illustrious roster resides Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (L’Enfer), what was to have been an artistically and technically ambitious project requiring dedicated performances from his cast and complex experimental lighting, camera and sound effects to achieve the director’s vision.
A highly regarded director whose reputation extended beyond his native France through the international success of such works as 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) and 1955’s Les diaboliques, for Inferno Clouzot was granted an unlimited budget by Columbia Pictures, allowing him to engage a veritable army of technicians including three full camera crews.
Filming to have taken place in the Cantal region of south central France in the summer of 1964, the production moved slowly, Clouzot’s tale of obsession and neurosis giving way to psychosis echoed in his own behaviour, demanding take after take until his actors were bruised and bleeding and exhausted, days spent on camera tests for lighting and makeup.
The schedule determined by the deadline of draining of the artificial lake by which they were filming, it was derailed when Reggiani dropped out due to illness, then Clouzot himself suffered a heart attack and the production was abandoned and the rolls of completed film were held unseen for decades.
It was not until a chance meeting between filmmaker Serge Bromberg and Clouzot’s widow Inès de Gonzalez that she was persuaded to release the footage, Bromberg gathering many of the surviving craftsmen and technicians who had worked on the project to discuss it alongside an assembly of the footage.
Premiered in 2009 at the Cannes Film Festival and winning the César Award for best documentary in 2010, Bromberg’s film has now been released on Blu-ray by Arrow alongside additional footage and a second documentary including interviews with composer Gilbert Amy, sound engineer Jean-Louis Ducarme, lighting director Joël Stein and art director Jacques Douy among others.
Starring Serge Reggiani as the jealous Marcel and Romy Schneider as Odette, his beautiful young wife whom he is convinced is cheating on him, it is undeniable that Inferno would have been a stunning and daring film, switching between elegantly composed black and white for the domestic scenes and glorious surreal distortions in the colours of madness for the fantasy scenes of Marcel’s breakdown.
Using mesmerising and disturbing effects created in camera with lenses and mirrors, split screen and superimposition and the techniques of optical art, the makeup and costumes designed to accommodate the colour shifts which would be achieved in the lab when the film was developed, every aspect of the film, every gesture and nuance of the performance of his actors, was to match Clouzot’s vision.
Bromberg perhaps too close to be objective, expecting his audience to know his subject as well as he does, there is little context given for the film or the performers, their careers and lives before or after Inferno, though an accompanying conversation with film expert Lucy Mazdon gives a useful overview of Clouzot’s work, style and impact, but it is the dazzling footage which holds the attention and remains in the memory.