Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno finally sees the light of day
It could have been the greatest film of all time but it fell apart. Tom Dawson meets the man who attempted to restore a lost classic by the French Hitchcock
Several years ago the French film restoration specialist Serge Bromberg went to visit the octogenarian widow, Ines, of the director Henri-Georges Clouzot, the man responsible for such misanthropic classics as The Raven, The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Bromberg wanted to get Ines’ permission to examine the footage taken on the set of Clouzot’s 1964 thriller L’Enfer (Inferno), which was aborted just three weeks into the shoot following the departure of leading actor Serge Reggiani and the heart attack and nervous exhaustion of Clouzot. She politely declined, and offered to escort Bromberg back down to the lobby, which is when fate intervened.
‘We got stuck in the lift for two hours!’ he cheerfully recalls, speaking on the day of the British premiere of the film during last month’s London Film Festival. ‘We didn’t talk about Inferno, because we’d already talked about that. We started speaking about our lives and got on really well. By the time the repairman rescued us, she said, “Well that’s a sign from above. Let’s try to work together”.’
Inferno was to have been one of the major French films of the 1960s. Clouzot was determined to show the New Wave upstarts that he was more than a craftsman, who symbolised what they derided as ‘le cinema du papa’. Galvanized by the example of Fellini’s groundbreaking 1963 auto-portrait 8 1/2, Clouzot aimed to reinvent cinema in his hallucinatory story of a hotel manager (Reggiani) consumed by feelings of paranoia and jealousy towards his beautiful young wife (Romy Schneider). Given unlimited funds by Columbia, he spent months in a Paris studio, carrying out elaborate experimental screen tests, which according to Bromberg, attempted to combine elements of ‘modern art, music, sculpture and painting all in one film. It was like he was creating a maze in which everyone gets lost, and during the shooting he himself got lost.’
For the purposes of his fascinating reconstructive documentary about the making of the ill-fated Inferno, Bromberg was able to inspect the contents of some 185 cans of film from the production, which had lain in storage for the past forty-odd years and which did not have audio tracks. These were negatives that had in most cases been printed only once, and were still in good condition. Indeed it’s the test footage of the radiant then 26-year-old international star Schneider, preening and dazzling before the camera’s gaze, which provide some of the documentary’s most intoxicating images. ‘Romy wanted to get rid of her little princess image,’ explains Bromberg . ‘Clouzot was the director who was going to turn her into a real actress, and she accepted the part absolutely.’
Thanks to Bromberg’s documentary, we can now see sequences such as Schneider sporting blue lipstick for the colour inversion process whilst nonchalantly water-skiing on a lake, which undoubtedly would have been cut out if Inferno had been completed. For Bromberg, there remains the paradox that ‘Clouzot got it right after all. The screen tests that we show are in a sense what he was looking for. A finished film with a beginning, middle and an end would have destroyed his idea of absolute cinema. The only way for Clouzot to be successful was to give up on Inferno, and for us forty years later to rediscover those images.’
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is at GFT, Glasgow from Sat 14–Mon 16 Nov and Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 27–Mon 30 Nov.