“Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” asks the sensualist next door in the Coens’ A Serious Man. Henri-Georges Clouzot did. Inflamed by the success of 8½, the French veteran set out in 1964 to outdo Fellini’s mod subjective experimentation. The ensuing aborted production, L’enfer, was a tale of deforming jealousy that seemed to crystallize the director’s gloating worldview of suspicion, cruelty, madness, and contaminated relationships. It was also, alas, a laundry list of behind-the-scenes calamities: too much money, not enough discipline, schedules capsized by ballooning avant-garde effects, a bullied leading man (Serge Regianni) walking off the set, and the filmmaker’s own physical collapse. Obsession is the theme, not so much the protagonist’s for his young, possibly adulterous wife (Romy Schneider) as Clouzot’s for the looser, mid-1960s cinematic liberties which allowed him to literally project his mania onto the skin of a tantalizing actress. The footage was locked away for decades. Clouzot’s widow, Inès de Gonzalez, has turned the project’s surviving material—185 cans of camera negative—over to archivist Serge Bromberg, co-director (with Ruxandra Medrea) of the documentary L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The film, with its unilluminating interviews, workshop-like plot reenactments and omissions (no mention of the 1994 Chabrol film made from the same screenplay), is at best a glorified DVD special feature. But the footage uncovered in it is frequently dazzling. Screen tests for clothes and makeup are voluminous, ghostly, increasingly ominous: Reggiani and Schneider cavort, wink and mug, then gradually wince at the harsh spotlight flashing in their eyes. The Côte d’Azur hotel where the married couple stays teems with clammy sensuality, which exacerbates the husband’s distrust as the wife hops around lotharios and libertines. All his psychosis needs to be uncorked is a little push, and a train’s whistle supplies it—the black-and-white screen suddenly turns Technicolor, his flirtatious beloved becomes in his mind a psychedelic lewdling. Two elements particularly fascinated Clouzot: the visualization of the main character’s grotesque jealousy, and Romy Schneider. For the former, the filmmaker marshaled enough prismatic superimpositions, swirling kaleidoscopes, and distorting visions to fill a week-long German Expressionism retrospective. For the latter, he had a game beauty playing putain, arching her back, gyrating her hips, inhaling and exhaling smoke, and otherwise licking the lenses. The camera virtually fucks Schneider —Lang once commented on how the zoom could show the trajectory of a bullet, Clouzot here posits a different penetration. (“Optical coitus” is how one assistant director dubs it, still puzzled after all these years.)
“Lost” films are by now a subgenre. Sternberg’s I, Claudius footage (Charles Laughton in a toga groveling under Emlyn Williams’ sword, Merle Oberon’s sideways carnal glance) is a high mark, but the patron saint of fragments is Welles. Assembly is unnecessary and often ruinous: I’d rather simply watch unedited reels of The Other Side of the Wind than sit through Jess Franco’s “reconstruction” of what’s left of Don Quixote. So it goes with L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot. The documentary’s revisionist flimsiness can’t dim the fascination of the material. Exploration did not come naturally to the dictatorial Clouzot: The exactitude of The Wages of Fear and made him an adversary of the improvisatory French New Wave, and even as formidable a figure as Picasso moves like a well-trained soldier under his command (Le Mystère Picasso). Are the endless views of Schneider seducing a neon pinwheel or doing naughty things with a Slinky the work of a Cinéma de Papa foggie lecherously pigging out on a decade’s swinging attitudes, or that of a rigid artist finally allowing himself to try things out, search, stumble? Improvisation may be the martinet’s inferno, but the uncertainty suffusing L’enfer is a healthy one, evidence of artistic chance-taking and inquiry. It might have been the beginning of a new phase for the director—the film documents the late-career funhouse that wrecked Clouzot, but might have liberated him, as well.