Interviews | Heaven and Hell: L’enfer d’ Henri-Georges Clouzot

Clouzot-InfernoBy Jason Anderson

So many noble quests for cinema’s lost arks, holy grails, and doomed farragoes yield less than we might have imagined. Yet the astonishing sight of the late Romy Schneider’s shimmering skin is only one of the many wonders discovered in the tantalizing wreckage of L’enfer d’ Henri-Georges Clouzot. Though 15 hours of test footage and rushes exist in the 185 reels of film that Serge Bromberg secured for use from Clouzot’s widow Ines de Gonzales, not enough of the movie was shot for any fully reconstituted version to be possible. Instead, Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary-slash-reimagining consists of a suitably mesmerizing mix of never-before-seen footage and new interviews with surviving crew members like William Lubtchansky and Costa-Gavras, both of whom were just beginning their careers when the film began shooting in July of 1964. There are also new scenes of actors reading from the script on a bare stage, a potentially controversial addition akin to Jane and Louise Wilson’s use of Dutch actor Johanna ter Steege in their recent installation piece on Stanley Kubrick’s never-made Aryan Papers.

Rather than dispel the many mysteries that have long surrounded Clouzot’s doomed project, Bromberg and Medrea’s film succeeds at deepening and strengthening them while still presenting the facts of the matter as best as they can be discerned. One certainty is that, in 1964, Clouzot cast the 26-year-old Schneider—then trying to shed her squeaky- clean image as the teen princess Sissi—and 42-year-old Serge Reggiani as the leads in what would’ve been his 16th feature. The script, written by Clouzot with Jose-Andre Lacour and Jean Ferry, told the story of a hotel manager in rural France who was driven to the edge of madness by the suspicion that his beautiful young wife was having an affair. Far from the director’s steely thrillers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the film was to be a voyage into neurosis and obsession more akin to the twitchiest works of Hitchcock and Fellini, with 8 1/2 (1963) being a key inspiration.

It was also sure to be Clouzot’s most experimental film. Given an unlimited budget by execs at Columbia—whose confidence stemmed in part from the success they had after bestowing a blank cheque to Kubrick for Dr. Strangelove (1964)—the director had already spent months doing test footage with Schneider and a team of technicians in which Clouzot explored his interests in kinetic art and musique concrète-style audio manipulations. His research in colour distortion would also yield eerie images of Schneider in cadaverous blue-and-grey make-up. A more iridescent effect was achieved by covering her skin with glitter and rapidly flashing lights on her face using a contraption originally designed by inventor Louis Dufay. These colour images would reveal the tormented fantasy world of the lead character Marcel, though how exactly Clouzot intended to use them remains unclear.

The shoot began in July at the ideal location, a hotel in the south of France on a picturesque lake…that was due to be drained for a hydroelectric project. That was just one problem facing the production, the gravest of all being Clouzot’s inability to discern a way forward. Days and weeks were spent shooting the same scenes over and over, rarely to the director’s satisfaction. Relations between Clouzot and Reggiani grew testy and eventually broke down completely, with illness being the official reason for the actor’s departure; Jean-Louis Trintignant arrived as a possible replacement. These difficulties no doubt contributed to the heart attack that Clouzot suffered on set, though the fact that he was shooting a lesbian love scene between Schneider and co-star Dany Carel at the time is yet another stranger-than-fiction element in the tale.

Though the remaining cast and crew stayed on for several more days while awaiting news of the director’s health, L’enfer would be abandoned only three weeks into a planned 18-week shoot. Bromberg suspects that it likely would have been extended even if Clouzot had recovered—after all, the director spent two years filming The Wages of Fear (1953). And the freedoms created by his unlimited budget would no doubt have sent Clouzot down many other blind alleys. Instead, the director restored his somewhat tattered reputation with a series of TV documentaries with conductor Herbert von Karajan. The making of his final feature, La prisonniere (1968), involved elements originally planned for L’enfer, but would also be temporarily halted due to illness. He was unable to secure backing for any other feature projects before his death in 1977.

The founder and CEO of the film restoration company Lobster Films and the maker of many programs on lost films for French television, Bromberg has spent much of his career searching for Gallic cinema’s missing treasures—his previous accomplishments include sound restorations for L’atalante (1934) and Les enfants du paradis (1945) and the rediscovery of 17 Méliès films thought to be lost. Securing permission to use the reels of L’enfer was a coup, yet Bromberg and co-director Medrea—whose expertise as an entertainment lawyer came in handy sorting out the thicket of legal issues—soon realized that any conventional presentation of the material could never do it justice. Just as Clouzot once strove to put the audience in the deranged mind of Marcel by using a battery of vanguard film and sound techniques, the filmmakers try to situate their viewers smack dab in the turmoil within Clouzot’s own head.

Thus does this story of madness become mired in its own mess of mania, confusion, conflict and neurosis. Meanwhile, those fragmentary images—particularly those long shots of Schneider at her most ravishing—wield a power that they may never have possessed when cut into smaller segments and included in the finished film, the irony of which Bromberg is well aware.

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Cinema Scope: How did your quest for L’enfer begin? Was it the discovery of the reels themselves?

Serge Bromberg: Actually, after deciding with a friend of mine to start looking for those cans, I found them quite easily. They were in the archives of the CNC, the French national film centre. But because the rights on the film were sold for 28 years beginning with the first public presentation of the completed film, Clouzot still technically owned the rights and the insurance company owned everything else—the films, the materials, the contracts with the actors, everything. The insurance company and Clouzot fought over them for years, and it continued after his death. Because there was never a clear decision, those cans were held in secrecy. The archives were not even supposed to say that they had them.

Scope: So in effect, there was no legal owner?

Bromberg: No, and no one could access those cans in any way—not the insurance company, not the widow, no one. So I said to myself, “Dealing with the insurance company will be easy, it will be just a matter of talking business.” But the widow was a different matter. She got married to Clouzot one week before the production started so that was the film that almost took her husband.

When I first called her, she said, “I don’t want to see you because every year I have five to ten people ask me. Maybe you’re number 300 in the line. Enough with this, I’m 85.” But I begged and showed her my work with lost films and eventually she said, “All right, you can come to my place. But if nothing special really happens then I won’t give you the films.”

I went there and I pled my case for one hour. In the end, she said, “Well, you’re nice and enthusiastic and you are an unusual character because of your research on classic films, but basically, you’ve told me only what the others have told me. So I will do you exactly what I’ve told you. Because nothing special happened, I will not give you the films. But I will see you to the elevator.”

So there I am at the elevator, trying to ask her politely, reconsider, think it over… anything. And she says, “Well, you never give up do you? Okay, here’s what I’ll do: because nothing special happened, I will see you to the first floor in the elevator. But I will not give you the films.” We go in the elevator, and believe it or not, between two floors, the elevator stops, and the light goes dark. So for three hours, I’m there with Mrs. Clouzot, stuck in the elevator. So is this a sign of God or just a mechanical problem? When the repairman took us out of this very, very small elevator, she said, “You know, something special happened. I think I can trust you.” That’s how the whole thing started. Without that elevator, there would have probably been no film.

Scope: Did you quickly realize what you had when you began screening the reels?

Bromberg: I thought there were about 40 reels; instead, there were 185. As I was opening the cans and repairing them, they were image negative so I could only see them on the Telecine. As they were going past, I thought, “How can this exist?” Not only that, but what I saw didn’t match the script. I was like, “What is this I’m watching?” When I did the interviews with Costa-Gavras and the others, I found out they didn’t know either. They may have been on the set with him but Clouzot was in his own world of creation or research. Was it filmmaking or purely a visual thing? Was he basically making love with Romy Schneider through his camera?

My film starts with interviews, but the more it goes on, the less there are because that’s exactly what I went through. I felt like I was watching this amazing and unpredictable mental collapse, as well as this adventure in cinema-making. Could it have worked in the end? I don’t know. It’s as if Clouzot had made some sort of a maze just to see if it could work. He just entered it and got lost. It’s like a man setting his own trap.

Scope: Do you think Clouzot’s unlimited budget was far more of curse than a boon?

Bromberg: My guess is that Clouzot would have finished the film if he had a more limited budget. Maybe it wouldn’t have been that amazing, but at least it would’ve been a film. Someone asked me at Telluride if I thought it would have been a good film in the end. Of course, it’s impossible to tell. The film that has been recovered doesn’t make much sense. The interviews reveal that Clouzot was certainly going somewhere, but he was the only one to know where that was.

My guess is—and I may be wrong, of course—that he was still in the early stages of research. And because he had an unlimited budget, it is quite possible that when the shoot was completed, he would have said, “Oh, let’s shoot it all over again.” The Wages of Fear took two years to shoot. There were catastrophes, sets were destroyed and of course, the production went completely over budget. I cannot think that L’enfer would have been his masterpiece or his final testimony on film if it could’ve been wrapped up in 18 weeks—too easy!

Scope: Do you think the reels’ content was even more enigmatic since it represents such a small fraction of what he must have intended to shoot?

Bromberg: One example is a shot you may remember because it’s one of the scariest: Romy Schneider is tied to the train tracks naked and the train comes towards her. Well, the train is a steam engine, the bridge was no longer approved for steam engines: Clouzot asked for it. And the contract with Romy Schneider specified no nudity, yet she is completely nude in that shot. This shot is not in the script. It could be a fantasy of the husband, but the fantasies are in colour and that shot is in black and white. Was it a mistake in loading the camera, a mistake in the script, or just Clouzot fantasizing and then shooting what he had in his mind? There is no answer to this. Why did Romy Schneider consent to do this? How come the railroad company brought that train there? There’s no easy way to tell.

Scope: Nor does it sound like there was any way for Costa-Gavras, Lubtchansky, or any other crew member to know.

Bromberg: No one was in Clouzot’s head. We have people who say Clouzot was listening to everyone before making a decision. Others would say that he was the only one who made decisions, then would impose them. Clouzot himself said that when he was in the sanatorium in the ‘30s bedridden with tuberculosis for five years, he would lie down, watch the ceiling and let ideas flash through his mind. After that, the way he would work was that before doing a scene, he would lie down, watch the sky, see the scene as he wanted it, and then ask everyone to do exactly what he had seen in his mind. For L’enfer, he was obviously seeing things that other people were not seeing. And he was taking the influence of art cinétique and Op Art and all that, but in the end he would watch the sky and have these fantasies on his own. So is it possible that after doing all this, Clouzot’s technique of fantasizing everything in his head didn’t work? All of a sudden, he finds himself among the hundreds of technicians and actors who have great trust in him but he’s basically not seeing anything any more.

Scope: The crew members you interviewed were obviously quite affected by what they witnessed happen with Clouzot and L’enfer. Do you think the experience of seeing him in such dire straits was upsetting for them?

Bromberg: After 45 years, the pain has gone. And no one would ever say Clouzot was a bad director—I really do believe he was a pure genius of cinema. They had great admiration for him. You must understand that all of these people are now in their seventies, so at the time they were in their twenties or thirties and they were beginning their careers. This would have been one of their first cinema experiences. And of course you always remember your first experiences as being among the best. They all have very strong feelings about that film, and that’s also because they had never seen one image of it. How could they have? Maybe some of them had seen dailies in the evening, but not all of them. They had been there doing this and all of a sudden everything goes dark.

But even after we showed them the images, they can’t say what happened. They all remember different things. People have different stories about how Clouzot had his heart attack. The scenario we kept was the one we were absolutely sure about, but two other people swore that he was in a different situation. Actually I’m writing a book about this, and after that, everybody will know everything there is to know about L’enfer. I think one of the last things I will keep is what his widow Ines said. She said, “You know, after 45 years, it’s hard to remember accurately, so the only real things we have to be sure of are the images. There must be an answer.” But it’s like with any legend—the details make no sense by themselves. The film begins like that. As it goes, you just forget the interviews and the story and just enter the images. And after the film is over, you should have the feeling of having seen L’enfer itself, and were also there on the set.

Scope: Is this what you hoped to accomplish once you exited that elevator?

Bromberg: I remember thinking, “Should I really do this? Am I the next in the line to have some sort of disaster?” Plus, I had never directed a film. I have produced many things, and I know this stuff quite well, but I had never directed. That elevator thing told me, “Not only are you going to do the film, but it was you who was in the elevator so don’t give it to anyone else.” As you can see, I built the film honestly and in a way I thought was the most efficient. Like in my shows, I try to take people into the adventure of discovery, one step at a time. We’re watching this man go out of his mind. What amazes me is the entire story of the film is about a man growing jealous of his wife— in the end he gives her pills, she falls asleep, he takes a razor and then…we don’t know.

Scope: So Clouzot intended L’enfer itself to have an ambiguous ending?

Bromberg: Not only was it ambiguous, but it began and ended with that scene. The man had his razor and his wife is lying down, and it’s not clear if she’s dead or asleep. He looks at the razor and then he thinks, “What happened? What am I doing here? Let’s try to remember.” So the entire story was told by the madman himself. We were inside his brain. As the narration went on, it was more and more difficult for him to keep track of what was real and what wasn’t. Did this really happen? Am I just making things up? In the end, the film would have finished at the same place, not having the answer. He would say, “Let’s try to remember again.” And in the script it didn’t say “The End,” it said: “Etc.” So there’s a loop in the man’s mind, and we’ll never know whether he was right or not. All we know for sure is that he is completely crazy.

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