Claude Chabrol’s L’enfer—Hell—is closer to the harsh brilliance of his black-and-white Les bonnes femmes (1960) than to the restraint and refinement of most of his other work in color. Chabrol revised a sixties script by Henri-Georges Clouzot that a heart attack prevented Clouzot from filming. Chabrol has imaginatively transformed what was likely, originally, misogynistic material.
The film opens with a rush of movement and the wedding of Paul and Nelly Prieur, who live in the coastal hotel/inn that Paul owns. Eventually an Iago-like voice forms in Paul’s head, which we also hear, tempting him to distrust his wife. He comes to believe that Nelly is having sex in the inn attic with every male guest. Paul’s verbal and physical assaults on his wife destroy her health, their marriage, their business.
Sexual jealousy is a symptom, not a cause, of Paul’s mental illness. Immediately preceding its first outburst, Paul expresses his annoyance and paranoia over the intrusion into the area of another hotel/inn. It has cut into the profitability of Paul’s own business. It is to his marriage that Paul transfers the increasing burden of his anxiety, and with good cause: at stake is his masculine pride (his ability to provide for wife and family), and his beauteous young wife is his possession as much as his business is. Competitive capitalism has imposed this bourgeoisism on Paul, contaminating his mind with the poison of possessiveness and persistent anxiety over imminent losses.
Chabrol creates a phenomenally expressive, Buñuelian, painfully hilarious vision where the discrepancy between a guest’s “hotel film” and Paul’s hallucinations while viewing it lead to such a chaos of delusions that we the viewer cannot distinguish among objective, reasonable point-of-view and insane point-of-view shots, all of which is correlative to Paul’s increasingly unhinged mind.
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