Close-Up on "Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno"

Bromberg and Medrea's documentary on Clouzot's unfinished, penultimate film depicts a film that can only exist in the viewer's imagination.
Henri de Corinth

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009) is showing from April 7 - May 7, 2018 in the United States.

“Memory is cursed with what hasn’t happened.”

—Marguerite Duras 

With Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea both reconstruct and describe the production of the titular unfinished 1964 film, presenting their film as at once an op-art experiment and a traditional documentary of a failed production. At its center, however, is a preoccupation with the notion of the historical fragment and the viewer’s attribution of meaning and value to the fragment. This attribution is largely the result of a lack, as Lacan put it, experienced by both the fragment and viewer that can never be satisfied. The fragment signifies its own symbolic desire to be a part of a whole and the viewer’s symbolic desire for that whole. In watching Clouzot’s images in Bromberg and Medrea’s film—just as in watching other fragments—the viewer senses the fragment’s movement toward a whole and wants to see the whole even though he or she knows logically that that isn’t possible sense Clouzot’s film proper can never exist.

As a documentary, Inferno frames Clouzot’s production as the sum of hubris. Interviews with Catherine Allegret, Konstantin Costa Gavras, and others associated with the production describe Clouzot as overly ambitious and odd: shooting certain scenes repeatedly, calling actors and collaborators in the middle of the night to discuss ideas (Clouzot suffered from insomnia), and so on. This was a departure from his noted efficiency in shooting previous films. Bromberg and Medrea suggest that Clouzot’s behavior was due to the film’s relatively large budget, which had allowed him more time and resources (at one point Columbia Pictures decided to provide funding after seeing early test footage). Conflicts eventually arose between director and performers, principal actors walked off the set, and Clouzot had a heart attack. The film fell behind schedule and was never finished. 

Simultaneously, Bromberg and Medrea reconstruct the narrative of what would been Clouzot’s penultimate film through surviving footage from 1964 and reenactments in 2009. Newly-married couple Marcel and Odette (Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider in 1964, Jacques Gamblin and Berenice Bejo in 2009) take on running a hotel in a small resort town. They eventually cross paths with Martineau (Jean-Claude Bercq) and Mary Lou (Dany Carrel). Marcel becomes convinced that Odette may have slept with Martineau, and grows jealous and obsessive. 

Top: Bridget Riley's Blaze. Above: Inferno.

A great amount of extant footage from Inferno—drawn from about 13 hours of footage housed in 185 film canisters—contains Clouzot’s visual interpretations of Marcel’s jealousy. These interpretations are based largely on abstracted, geometric imagery from the nascent op-art movement of the 1960s—particularly works by Yaakov Agam, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and his son Jean-Pierre Vasarely, known popularly as Yvaral. While the relationship between motion pictures and painting had of course been strong in both commercial and avant-garde cinema from the beginning, in 1964, viewers would have considered this footage daring or surreal for a major narrative film, comparable perhaps to Salvador Dalí’s designs for the hypnosis sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Clouzot’s images include the use of kaleidoscopic lenses, color inversion with photography and makeup, and time lapse. Clouzot would later replicate many of these images in his final film, Woman in Chains (1968). 

It is perhaps because this footage is so striking still today that at the core of Inferno is the notion that the film fragment—removed from narrative context and any relationship to a larger ‘whole’—has value as cinema. In their way, the bits of abstracted test footage of Schneider, Reggiani, and Carrel could function as individual works at an op-art exhibition. It might therefore benefit the viewer to appraise the fragment according to Iván Villarmea Álvarez's distinction between a film’s historical value and its identity value. Inferno’s historical value entails the extant footage as “a sign of collective representations”: It would have been one of the first films to incorporate op-art imagery, and was intended to showcase Schneider’s range as an actress. Its identity value entails the footage as a sign rooted in various cultural criteria but also in flux and constantly changing: To see a portrait of Reggiani and Schneider in wedding attire or a split-diopter image of Reggiani and Bercq through the epistemic lens of 2018, for example—with aspects of our understanding of sexual attraction or marriage having evolved over the course of nearly 60 years—is an experience for the viewer removed from what might have been the case in 1964. The documentary itself also alters what one sees, and is ultimately a different viewing experience than simply watching Clouzot’s 1964 footage alone.

Top: Victor Vasarely's Keiho C1. Above: Inferno.

There are several instances of critics and viewers’ interest in fragments that suggest their having historical and identity value. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926) routinely appears on various ‘best of’ lists despite an estimated 20-30 minutes of footage and all of its intended narration having been lost. This loss, arguably, renders the fragment incomprehensible. The case would be the same were one to piece together the remnants of Inferno: production had stopped when by most accounts only three quarters of the film had been shot, and no soundtrack for the film exists. To a lesser extent, critics and viewers have privileged test and rehearsal footage for unfinished works. Sergei Parajanov’s Kiev Frescoes (1966), for example, is comprised entirely of test footage for a much larger intended work that was eventually halted by the Soviet government.

Inferno views the fragment in a manner similar to that of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha (2002) or Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013): as a narrative ‘making of’ depiction of a film that can exist only in the viewer’s imagination. Yet, it is also not dissimilar to fragments such as Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe (1977/1987) and George Sluizer’s Dark Blood (1993/2012): a ‘reconstruction,’ their missing scenes replaced with something else. Collectively, these works represent a symptom of lack, a cinematic equivalent of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest with no one there to hear it. It is, however, a lack that has no resolution. The viewer is ultimately left with a palimpsest of what the complete whole would have looked like and with a desire for a whole that will never exist.

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Henri-Georges ClouzotNow ShowingClose-UpSerge BrombergRuxandra Medrea
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