by Jim Ridley
Can something be fairly innocuous in content, and still not safe for work? Put the question to the test with this sizzling strip of celluloid, a clip from the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, starting tonight at The Belcourt as part of the ongoing "Doctober" series.
Clouzot was the French director behind such terrific commercial thrillers as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear (which has maybe the most brilliantly simple action-movie set-up of all time: men drive explosives truck over bumpy road). Clouzot met his Waterloo with the aborted Inferno project, which Michael Sicinski describes in his Scene review this week:
In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of such classics as Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, and Diabolique (and considered "the French Hitchcock" by, among others, Hitchcock himself), embarked upon his most ambitious project to date. L'Enfer (Inferno) was to star Romy Schneider as Odette, the sexy, devoted young wife of Marcel, a resort hotelier played by Serge Reggiani. Inferno, as conceived by Clouzot, would be a highly abstract plunge into male paranoia, frequently adopting the warped point of view of the insanely jealous Marcel. His distorted, near-Cubist fantasies of an oversexed, potentially bisexual Odette cheating with everyone in sight would appear in saturated color, as opposed to the crisp black-and-white imagery of Inferno's "reality." But something went haywire. Clouzot never completed the film. ...
What went wrong? Where to begin? Clouzot was given a nearly open-ended budget, and was his own producer, so there was no one to demand closure. He also had an openly adversarial relationship with Reggiani, who eventually walked off the set. And then Clouzot had a heart attack. ... Clouzot seemed to have formed Schneider into a fetish object, and perhaps he was reluctant to let their unilateral, oculocentric love affair evaporate.
What's left, however, has been assembled by French media archivist Serge Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea into a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. "Together with his all-star camera crew and a radical make-up artist," Sicinski writes, "Clouzot conducted endless screen tests with Schneider, coating her in oil and glitter; wrapping her in cellophane; producing hypno-spiral effects in her eyes; distorting her form with running water in front of the lens; all the while seductively denaturing her with saturated colored lights and gels."
The clip above shows the director in the thrall of his stunning leading lady, mesmerized by her scorching gaze and the wisps of cigarette smoke curling from her moistened lips. It looks like a Scopitone, or some lost piece of swanky exotica — but it has the pull of obsession, even when Schneider's doing semi-kinky things with a Slinky. (I kid you not.) Sicinski concludes:
Amazingly enough, though, despite the benighted character of Inferno, what remains is more than scraps of greatness. You can sense that something near-complete, if not linear or even sensible, is there to be assembled from Clouzot's tangents and gestures. If you've ever seen Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep or any short film by Guy Maddin, you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if so — well, you're definitely this documentary's target audience.