Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Anyone who believes that directorial self-indulgence is a new phenomenon will find Serge Bromberg's documentary, "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno," to be a revelation. The film has been shown at several festivals, most recently at the New York Film Festival, where it hypnotized audiences. Boxoffice prospects are limited, but this picture will have a long shelf life as a point of reference for cineastes all over the world.

Clouzot was among the pre-eminent French film auteurs. Although he was reviled by the directors of the New Wave for making traditional narrative films, his movies -- including "Le Corbeau," "Wages of Fear" with Yves Montand, "Diabolique" with Simone Signoret, and "La Verite" with Brigitte Bardot -- were enormous international hits and influential on other filmmakers. ("Le Corbeau," "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique" were all remade in Hollywood.) In 1964 he was at the peak of his success, and Columbia granted him carte blanche and an unlimited budget to direct "Inferno," a psychological thriller starring screen goddess Romy Schneider.

Like many other filmmakers all over the world, Clouzot was dazzled by Federico Fellini's "8," which had been released the previous year. He resolved to make a more subjective and experimental film than anything he had attempted previously. "Inferno" was to be a study of jealousy and paranoia, with sequences attempting to get inside the troubled mind of his hero, played by Serge Reggiani. But Clouzot may have been temperamentally unsuited to make a non-linear film, or he may have been befuddled by too much creative freedom, or -- as the documentary suggests -- so infatuated with Schneider that he lost all objectivity. Mired in indecisiveness, he shot for weeks without putting together any kind of coherent narrative. Eventually Reggiani walked off the set, and soon afterwards, Clouzot had a heart attack. The project was scuttled.

For decades, buffs have been curious to see the 15 hours of film that Clouzot shot, but the director's widow (Clouzot died in 1977) refused to let anyone have a look until Bromberg, a film historian and restoration expert, showed up at her doorstep. The footage that Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea have assembled is sometimes extraordinary. While the psychedelic effects seem dated, there are some amazing tracking shots of Reggiani stalking Schneider that catch the feverish sensibility of a man obsessed. Schneider herself is a magnificent camera subject, and there is added poignancy in remembering her own untimely death just 20 years later.

Bromberg includes interviews with several of the surviving members of the crew, including Costa-Gavras, who worked as an assistant director for Clouzot, and actress Catherine Allegret, Signoret's daughter. Bromberg also hired two actors, Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, to perform scenes from the script that were never filmed. All in all, this is a remarkable journey into the psyche of an obsessed director. We can't help thinking of all the other mad, perfectionist filmmakers -- Michael Cimino, Terry Gilliam, Oliver Stone -- who followed successes with grand follies that came close to destroying their careers. Bromberg tells an emblematic story of cinematic hubris with clarity and insight. There's no way of knowing if "Inferno" would have been a masterpiece or a fiasco, but Bromberg has crafted something of a film buff's dream from Clouzot's nightmare.

Venue: New York Film Festival

Cast: Romy Schneider, Serge Reggiani, Berenice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin
Directors: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea
Producer: Serge Bromberg
Executive producer: Marianne Lere
Directors of photography: Irina Lubtchansky, Jerome Krumenacker
Production designer: Nicolas Faure
Music: Bruno Alexlu
Editor: Janice Jones
No MPAA rating, 94 minutes