The idea of the lost or broken film is central to cinephilia, but its implications are ambiguous. On the one hand, it allows the film lover to construct a neo-Platonic ideal of the perfect film. However, such dreams suggest a certain dissatisfaction with the cinema as it exists (as anyone who has read David Thomson’s writings of the last three decades will attest). Does anyone suppress a secret pang amid the joy when a legendary film, lost but much thought about, is discovered in a dusty attic or mouldy basement (these are the appropriate settings for the legend)? Personally, after the initial euphoria at the news of a “complete” Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926) had worn off, actually watching the new footage was a disappointment; it added surprisingly little to the many pleasures the cut version had given me over the years.
In any case, the phenomenon of the film Lost and Found, like those of Paradise or Innocence, needs a myth of origin. Serge Bromberg, as head of Lobster Films, has made it his life’s work to seek out, find, restore and distribute such “lost” films. Lobster’s series of DVDs highlighting these finds was called Retour de flamme, pointing to both the flammable nature of early film stock which has resulted in the loss of so much early (and not so early) cinema, but also, perhaps immodestly, the “phoenix from the flames”-like miracle of rebirth Bromberg performs on them.
Despite being systematic and pro-active in his research, Bromberg’s success inevitably depends on luck. Like being stuck in a lift with an elderly woman. In a film by Henri-Georges Clouzot, such a scenario might inspire a tale of sexual tension laced with fear, claustrophobia, recrimination and, ultimately, violence. After all, the elderly woman with whom Bromberg shared a broken lift was Inez Clouzot, the director’s widow. Rather than violence, however, Inez offered Bromberg a treasure: 13 cans of the experiments and rushes that survived of Clouzot’s unfinished L’enfer. Clouzot’s astonishing footage is the heart of Bromberg’s documentary (co-directed with Ruxandra Medrea Annonier). It is put into context by the story of its genesis, pre-production and shooting (unlike most such works about film production, this is an “unmaking-of”), narrated by surviving cast and crew, and supplemented by Bromberg’s speculations.
Up until 1964, Clouzot was known for his professionalism and craftsmanship, his detailed preparations of script (he began his career as a screenwriter) and storyboards. However grim the content of his films – Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955) – their form was tidy and explicable enough to generate huge audiences and media coverage.
Clouzot’s experience making Le Mystère Picasso (1956) led to a greater interest in modern art – in particular Kinetic and Op Art – and experimentation in other media, such as the musique concrète of Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis. He wrote a script about a middle-aged husband insanely jealous of his younger wife which, as Claude Chabrol’s faithful 1994 adaptation proved, was as well-constructed, psychologically acute and sensitive to the influence of location and atmosphere on character as Clouzot’s previous films.
However, Clouzot wanted to make a new kind of cinema. His film would be divided in two. Characters, locale and set-up would be filmed in black-and-white. The subjective hallucinations, breakdowns, imaginings, fears and fantasies of the husband would be represented by a mise en scène deformed in sound and image, using the tests Clouzot made with a small crew (including future director Costa-Gavras and legendary cinematographer Willy Lubtchansky) in the weeks preceding the shoot.
Due to health difficulties, wasteful shooting methods, and poor communication between Clouzot and his collaborators, the production of L’enfer was finally closed down. The surviving footage suggested that Clouzot was unable to wed his audio-visual experiments to the conventionality of his screenplay. A finished film might have been modish and unwatchable. But the fact is, L’enfer wasn’t finished, and so can be acclaimed by some as a masterpiece of world cinema. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Clouzot, temperamentally unable to crystallise his concerns and personality into the form of his cinema, put them into the making of this film – its obsessiveness informs the directionless experimentation, the abandonment of production practicalities, and the crazed reshooting of the same scenes to no apparent end.
L’enfer’s second claim to fame is the test footage Clouzot shot of Romy Schneider, French cinema’s most adventurous actress of this era. These tests and the remaining footage have a pornographic intensity: overtly so in scenes where a topless Schneider is tied to railway tracks, screaming at an oncoming train; masturbates with a Slinky; or makes out with Dany Carrel in a speedboat. The filming of this last scene unsurprisingly gave Clouzot the heart attack that finally closed the production. But no less unnerving and powerful are sequences where Schneider simply stands as Clouzot grills her with filtered lights, pawing her body and face, making her pupils swirl demonically; in one sequence, she repeatedly flinches from the glare. Clouzot, famous as a tyrannical director on set, didn’t need to shout or pull hair in order to torture his performers.
Bromberg edits Clouzot’s rushes into long montages, punctuated by gripping readings of unfilmed portions of the script by Jacques Gamblin and Bérénice Bejo. The montages are stunning, hypnotic and tantalising, but it’s not clear how many of the rushes were worked on by Clouzot himself, or what criteria Bromberg used. The film doesn’t mention any surviving paper records that might have given such hints, or more insights into Clouzot’s state of mind at the time, so we’re left with the sometimes embittered accounts of his collaborators. But one shocking fragment renders the need for such “insight” superfluous: a recording of Clouzot himself in the role of the jealous husband, the distortion of sound emphasising an already strained voice. It is an audio Theatre of Cruelty worthy of Antonin Artaud: barking, shrieking and squawking out the demons only hinted at in Clouzot’s finished works.
L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009 France 100 mins)
Prod Co: Lobster Films/France 2 Cinéma Prod, Scr: Serge Bromberg Dir: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea Annonier Phot: Jérôme Krumenacker, Irina Lubtchansky Ed: Janice Jones Prod Des: Nicolas Faure Mus: Bruno Alexiu