Posts Tagged ‘New York Film Festival’

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New York Film Festival • “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’,” dir. Serge Bromberg

October 5, 2009
Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Bromberg is known for finding rare films that have either been lost or kept from the public for many years. For his latest documentary, he convinced Clouzot’s widow to license him the footage from his aborted production, Inferno.

Bromberg discussed his encounter with Clouzot’s widow when he introduced the film at the New York Film Festival, and much to the audience’s delight, Bromberg kept delaying the start of the picture with his anecdote. It was clear that he and film critic Scott Foundas had rehearsed this little routine, but it was a charming way to open the movie.

According to Bromberg, many people had already approached Clouzot’s widow about Inferno, but she was never compelled to release the footage. She agreed to meet with him anyway, and every time Bromberg believed he had convinced her, she would shoot him down, pushing him to grovel a little bit more.

When Foundas cut off Bromberg, he was recounting his pleas to Clouzot’s widow as she escorted him to the elevator. At that point, Bromberg told us he would finish the story after the show, and when the film started up, the first words we heard were: “Our story begins in a dark elevator in Paris…”

•          •          •          •

When the French New Wave landed in 1959, they apparently raked Clouzot over the coals.* To them, Clouzot was part of the French filmmaking establishment they were rebelling against, and with Inferno, Clouzot was determined to show them a thing or two.

What followed actually recalls the Beach Boys’ SMiLE album; the film was never completed and Clouzot suffered greatly for it (though not as much as Brian Wilson did for SMiLE). But what little survives is revelatory and stylistically audacious.

Most of the unearthed footage appears to be test shots, and as can be expected, the experiments are hit-or-miss. The kaleidoscope effects in particular look very dated, but some effects look absolutely stunning. Coming from Clouzot, it was even more impressive; nothing in his previous work had anything like this. How often do you see an established, successful veteran leaping out of his comfort zone and swinging for the fences?

One of the more fascinating experiments dealt with color – some of the visuals Clouzot had in mind were difficult enough, but he wanted to forgo photographic processing altogether and do everything in-camera. For example, much of the film takes place around a lake, and he wanted to alter the color of the water and the landscape while retaining the actors’ natural skin color. Clouzot apparently accomplished this with the help of body make-up, painting the actors in blue tones so that they would look ‘natural’ on film.

Unfortunately, the production didn’t last long, and very little was ultimately shot. The documentary doesn’t even show any dialogue scenes; instead, Bromberg had to film recreations with Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, framing them on blank sets.

What we do get is two sequences that are close to completion. Inferno deals with a husband’s pathological jealousy, and both sequences are compelling portrayals of this mindset.

The first one follows the wife through the local marketplace, and it unfurls many of the experiments seen in the earlier test shots. It’s hardly subtle, but it all works, with every trick rooted in the husband’s warped perspective. Clouzot handles everything with just enough discipline to keep it palatable.

The second is far more tantalizing, with the husband observing his wife with another man. This time, a stronger narrative runs through the sequence, and Clouzot’s bold experiments feel wholly organic to the storytelling. For example, Clouzot shifts back and forth from color to black and white, the former representing crazed delusions and the latter reality. Even better are the brilliant compositions scattered throughout this sequence, with the best one involving a train running over a bridge. (When I find a still, I’ll post it.)

The last few minutes of the documentary is dedicated to a series of color shots involving Romy Schneider, who played the wife. Most of these were intended as brief inserts, and Bromberg believes they would not have survived in their entirety had they been edited into the film. Seen uncut, they comprise one saving grace of the production’s failure. (I doubt a slinky has ever been filmed with more suggestiveness).

•          •          •          •

Which brings us to the conclusion of Bromberg’s story. As luck would have it, their elevator was stalled for two hours. During that time, Bromberg and Clouzot’s widow got acquainted on a personal level, and it was only then that she agreed to loan the footage to him.

A year later, when Bromberg showed her the completed documentary, she was visibly upset throughout the entire screening. When the lights went up, Bromberg believed his film would never see the light of day. Instead, she told him, “this is exactly how it happened,” and no changes were ever made to the Bromberg’s documentary.

* Bromberg conceded that Truffaut wrote Clouzot a gushing fan letter, but he said that “Truffaut wrote a lot of letters to everybody…if you went through Leni Riefenstahl’s files, I’m sure you would find a letter from Truffaut.”

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