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The Auteurs Daily: Telluride, Toronto and NYFF. L'Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot

 

The Auteurs Daily

L'Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot

Where to begin. Perhaps with Scott Foundas's introduction to "Serge Bromberg, who began fervently collecting films at age nine, and today, four decades later, might best be described as an Indiana Jones of the moving image, raiding flea markets, antique shops, dusty attics and beyond in search of lost or unknown cinema.... Bromberg was on hand in Telluride to receive the festival's Special Medallion and also to present his well-traveled stage show, Retour de Flamme (Saved From the Flames), in which he showcases some of his recent treasure-hunting finds, many of which are now also available on DVD in France from Bromberg's own Lobster Films, and, in the US, on the Flicker Alley label.... Just seeing these films is a rare enough treat, but Bromberg is more than a mere presenter; he's a vaudevillian showman in his own right, bounding enthusiastically about the stage, lighting a strip of nitrate film ablaze, providing his own piano accompaniment... 'I can't think of anywhere else in the world I'd rather be right now,' an awestruck Alexander Payne said mid-way through Bromberg's program. I couldn't have said it any better myself."

Now to Henri-Georges Clouzot and the film that "was to be his masterpiece, L'Enfer, a revolutionary experiment in form inspired in part by Fellini's ." Darren Hughes: "The project was abandoned after endless months of camera tests; after millions of Hollywood dollars were spent; after the film's lead actor, Serge Reggiani, walked off the film, due either to depression, his exasperation with his director, or some combination of the two; and after, finally, Clouzot himself suffered a heart attack. By way of analogy, imagine if, after all that time in the jungle, Coppola had returned to the States with only 13 hours of exploding forests and Brando's improvisations. And imagine if that footage had been locked in a legal battle - and locked in a vault - for 45 years, unseen by anyone."

To the AV Club tag team. Noel Murray: "The material Bromberg found is truly stunning; Inferno's story of jealous husband Serge Regianni and the wild fantasies he has about the extramarital activities of his sexbomb wife Romy Schneider might not have been a ground-breaker from a narrative point of view, but the imagery and audio trickery Clouzot came up with to dramatize Regianni's mental breakdown constitutes some of the most eerily beautiful and visually jarring stuff put on film outside the avant-garde.... Too bad then Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's documentary L'Enfer De Henri-Georges Clouzot doesn't even come close to doing justice to the film it's honoring." Scott Tobias: "The vibrant, funhouse beauty of Inferno's test footage bears no relation to the more conventional (albeit meticulous and underappreciated) style of Clouzot's suspense masterpieces like Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, and Diabolique.... Given this footage and these extraordinary circumstances - and some cast and crew members willing to talk about their trauma for the first time - Blomberg and Medrea have no excuse for making a documentary this DVD-featurette pedestrian."

"Bromberg's film comes to use Inferno's production as a metaphor for creative obsession," writes Ben Kenigsberg for Time Out Chicago. "The more standard doc material provides an effective grounding for Clouzot's material while also staying out of its way.... This is the rare documentary that's much more of an aesthetic pleasure than a narrative one, which makes it hard to describe in appropriately rapturous terms."

Update, 9/22: At the screening Mike D'Angelo attended for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Bromberg "showed up to make a few introductory remarks. If the people who invested money in this picture have any sense whatsoever, they will muzzle the guy in future, because his charming, hilarious prologue very nearly killed the movie dead.... As Bromberg noted (though again, only in the Q&A, not in the damn film!), these remarkable shots, which go on for up to a minute or even longer, would likely have been edited to a few seconds in the movie itself, and hence come across here as more avant-garde than Clouzot may have intended. But I could happily have spent 90 minutes watching tiny pinpricks of light dancing in carnival-midway circles around Romy Schneider's irises."

Updates, 9/23: "Obscurity abets reputation," notes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "Now accessible, some of Clouzot's breakthroughs seem no more visionary than the light-show psychedelia commonplace after 1967's The Trip. But Bromberg has also assembled some of Clouzot's filmed dramatic sequences, showing his lubricious camerawork in tantalizingly good form. One set piece - Marcel, on the shore, pursuing a waterskiing Odette - could be 'The French Hitchcock' responding to the bold spatial leaps around The Birds's Bodega Bay."

"One can't help wondering what French critics in 1964 would have thought of L'enfer had it been finished and released," writes Michael Koresky for Criterion's Current. "As Bromberg makes clear, Clouzot was out of favor at the time, his meticulousness antithetical to the ethos of the New Wave. Yet judging by the images, L'enfer promised to be something different from his tightly wound earlier films such as The Wages of Fear and Quai des orfèvres - a bold move forward with an anything-goes attitude and a very modern, kinetic feel."

 

 

Update, 9/27: "One facial superimposition effect scoops Bergman's Persona by a few years, while other camera tricks seem like 60s updates of what surrealists like Man Ray were doing in the 20s," notes Kevin B Lee in Slant. "Bromberg and Medrea's attempts to edit entire sequences out of the footage, with voice dubbing and foley effects give a not fully satisfying approximation of what might have been; if Clouzot wasn't satisfied with what he had, Bromberg and Medrea's Frankenstein interventions aren't likely to be much better. Fortunately, the directors' assiduous behind-the-scenes storytelling gives a satisfying and disturbing glimpse at how one man's obsessive, perfectionist drive to break new ground created a living nightmare for him and his crew, with several cans of film left to show for the effort."

Updates, 10/1: "For revisionist snobs only, this doc feels like a DVD extra," finds Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York.

Online listening tip. The Film Talk.

Update, 10/7: "[T]here are limits to our sense of how Clouzot himself might have assembled his dreamcoat, though in some ways, as with what survives of, say, Welles's The Other Side of the Wind, the footage speaks loudly enough for itself," writes Nicolas Rapold for the L Magazine. "Bromberg is by profession a film preservationist" and his "infectious wonder emanates from this limited but intriguing documentary."

Update, 10/8: Acquarello finds the doc "loosely recalls José Luis Guerín's cinema in exploring the intersection between fiction and non-fiction, reality and memory.... By incorporating Clouzot's shot technical experiments featuring Schneider that were to be used as a basis for dream sequences - but were not intended to be seen in their entirety in the final cut - Bromberg and Medrea cleverly introduce another dimension of 'truth' between film image and memory that, like the deconstructed found film in Guerín's Tren de sombras, reflect on the role of cinema as conjurer of images, revealing lost phantoms that exist only in the frames between the visible."

Update, 10/13: "'Lost' films are by now a subgenre," writes Fernando F Croce. "Sternberg's I, Claudius footage (Charles Laughton in a toga groveling under Emlyn Williams's 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."

"Clouzot's interest in obsessive jealousy might have been engendered by his obsession with the beautiful and seductive Schneider," writes Marilyn Ferdinand, "but clearly, Odette must be seen as the object of obsession for the lunatic Marcel. I thought the directors overdid this aspect of Clouzot's method, while ignoring the more obvious causes of his creative paralysis."

Updates, 10/31: "Clouzot was hated and feted in equal measure," and Stuart Jeffries elaborates in the Guardian with stories about this "director with a taste for violence and betrayal - and not just in his films."

"Clouzot was perhaps the first of the Kubricks, Coppolas and Gilliams: those filmmakers whose commitment to their art knows no bounds, brooks no compromise and is often highly destructive," suggests Catherine Wheatley in Sight & Sound.

TIFF 09: Index; full coverage; lineup.

NYFF 09: Index; full coverage.

 

I wonder if the fantasy sequences in this film resemble the one at the end of Clouzot’s next film, “La prisonnière”, when the heroine, who is having an affair with a difficult artist, starts to have a breakdown. And I seem to recall that Clouzot’s script for “L’Enfer” was used some 30 years later for Chabrol’s film of the same name, though I don’t remember much avant-garde imagery in that.

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