In the long, often challenging history of film, troubled productions as a subject gets its own chapter. Hell, it should probably get a book of its own. For me personally, it’s just fascinating to see the various struggles of a film production, and then bring that understanding to a new way to watch the film. The only thing perhaps more interesting than those stories are the ones for films that are eventually abandoned. Terry Gilliam’s repeated attempts to film Don Quixote, as seen in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, is a good example.
Although Terry swears he’s going to get the movie out this year, so maybe, sometimes, there’s hope for a consistently, inexplicably doomed production.
There isn’t much hope that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1964 film Inferno will be finished. Not by the principals, anyway. Most of them are quite dead. Yet, Clouzot, a great French filmmaker who crafted such masterpieces as Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear, was clearly on the cusp of another classic with Inferno. It just happened to be that the movie was beset by a wide range of problems.
By the time Clouzot had the opportunity to finish it, he instead chose to leave the film in ruins. The footage is included in this moving, beautiful documentary from Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea. It would have been a fascinating portrayal of a man (Serge Reggiani) who becomes increasingly convinced that his wife (the absolutely stunning, brilliant Romy Schneider) is unfaithful. The basic premise doesn’t sound very exciting. However, Clouzot was a master of taking simple concepts into truly unreal territory. His best films start by existing in the realm of our expectations. Those expectations are then slowly dashed aside. What you are ultimately left with is a gripping sensation that you probably shouldn’t trust your own perception of the world around you. At least, not for a little while.
Inferno would have been more of Clouzot’s singular ability to disarm and then stun you over and over again. It is a small tragedy, at least in the world of film, that so many headaches followed this film from its shaky beginnings, to the moment in which Clouzot thought “Nah, fuck this.” Or some fiercely intelligent, extremely French variation of that thought. The documentary explores all of these problems, while also showing lengthy scenes from what might well have been Clouzot’s masterpiece. The film’s more bizarre moments bring to mind the more abstract moments of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. Except Inferno is much more unhinged, much more calculated in how to show the crumbling of a man’s psyche, and much, much darker.
The documentary also includes a number of readings between two actors for the scenes that were written, but never shot. Those parts are fine, and they aren’t frequent, but this documentary’s best moments are the ones Clouzot actually filmed. This would have been an extraordinary film. This thought is so intensely clear, and occurs to you so often, you can’t help but watch something like this, and be a little depressed. It’s that same old sad story about what could have been. With filmmakers of Clouzot’s caliber, their filmographies taken as a whole are just not enough. We want more. We secretly, quietly dislike the fact that we can’t have more.
Even in an incomplete form, Inferno is still a profound, fascinating film. It deserves to be appreciated in any form. However, the best form is clearly this documentary. The movie lets the footage speak for itself, more often than not, and the interviews with at least some of the living collaborators, gives us a nice foundation of context. The notion that Clouzot was obsessed with Schneider is one of the possible theories explored, in terms of why this movie was eventually left to rot in obscurity. The footage Clouzot shot lends a weird, unspoken degree of credence to that opinion. Clouzot was a man who was clearly obsessed with control. This would include not only maintaining it, even as your world disintegrates, but also in terms of losing it. Clouzot explored that relationship within himself in many of his films. Inferno would have been the deepest, grimmest exploration to date.
Arrow Academy, part of the legendary Arrow Video brand, has put out a marvelous Blu-ray here. The audio and video are flawless, and there are a number of fascinating special features. To be sure, you will know the story of this film inside and out, when it is all said and done.
Why watch a 2009 documentary about a failed 1964 movie? It’s good film history, for one thing. In the second place, the footage is gorgeous and terrifying. Those things should be enough to pull you in. The special features from Arrow will leave you lamenting this incomplete tour de force. The documentary in itself is an entertaining, vital tribute to unrealized potential and cynicism mashed with bouts of impotent rage.
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A mesmerizing tribute to an incomplete classic, this Arrow Academy release of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno offers a comprehensive way to enjoy one of the best documentaries about filmmaking of all time.
Review copy provided
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