A heart attack prevented Henri-Georges Clouzot from completing the filming of what some have nevertheless projected as his likely masterpiece, L’enfer, the script to which Clouzot’s widow sold to Claude Chabrol in the 1990s, resulting in Chabrol’s brilliant film with the same title (1994). The material details a man’s waking nightmare as he steadily slips into madness, consumed by increasingly hysterical sexual jealousy targeting his guiltless wife. Chabrol’s, one of cinema’s leading feminists, here lays claim to one of his most dazzling and riveting works.
Around the same time that Chabrol acquired the sixties script, Clouzot’s widow also released to the public her late husband’s aborted film—fragments that now gloss the infamous history of the original ill-fated production. Among elements of that history are these: the transformation of a small project into a superproduction once Hollywood’s Columbia came in and extended to Clouzot an “unlimited budget”; the illness and subsequent dropping out of the original male star, Serge Reggiani, whose considerable footage had to be scrapped, his replacement by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who wasn’t even tested for the role and remained for less than a week; Clouzot’s debilitating heart attack.
Utilizing examples of what Clouzot had shot of L’enfer, as well as interviews of cast and crew members, in 2009 a documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’enfer, appeared, which takes its unifying perspective from a remark by one of those interviewed, I believe Constantin Costa-Gavros, that the normally focused and “precise” Clouzot was at loose ends on this particular project, seemingly increasingly “lost.” The directors, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, won the best documentary prize at São Paulo and the César Award.
Perhaps their singular achievement is to revive the notion that, had he completed it, L’enfer would have been Clouzot’s masterpiece. To me, this doesn’t seem likely. The Clouzot-footage is, here and there, indeed arresting, and certainly the scene where the Slinky slinks down Romy Schneider and comes to rest on her vulva is erotically charged; but, when “lost,” filmmakers do not create masterpieces. Such events do, however, contribute interesting glosses on their psychological profiles. What drove Clouzot to his precarious state, not to mention the heart attack? You know as well as I do. Try as he did to keep the wife’s innocence in his line of sight, Clouzot found himself torn, increasingly siding with the misogynistic spouse. This bedeviled and undid him. Bromberg and Medrea leave it to us to figure out—or were they themselves a bit “lost”? Their insistence that Clouzot was “one of the world’s greatest filmmakers” inspires little confidence in either their judgment or their sanity.