Thursday, November 19, 2009

HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO - great footage, great choices, but no context

LOST IN LA MANCHA was a wonderfully tragicomic documentary about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. With the charismatic Gilliam railing against the Gods, it was marvelously entertaining and very accessible. The fact that the film-makers were documenting events as they happened made it feel immediate and communicated the sense of a film unraveling before our very eyes. By contrast, HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO is a rather dry restoration project, of interest to people who love cinema-history and the technical aspects of film-making. I doubt it will hold the attention of anyone who hasn't already heard of the mid-century French auteur.

Part of the reason for its limited appeal is that the documentary film-makers give so little context to Clouzot. Yes, they name-check his films and have his co-workers praise him, but there are no film clips of those films and no potted history of French cinema to that point. The audience is meant to already know why THE WAGES OF FEAR or LE CORBEAU are signficant, and to understand who the French New Wave were and why they might be antipathetic to Clousseau's directorial style and subject-matter. The audience is expected to know why Clouzot might have been so angered by this, and jealous to top Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2, that he drove himself to grief with the ambitious INFERNO. But no, precious little information is given here. Reductively, we are told that the French New Wave objected to his detailed story-boarding. Similarly, nowhere do we explore Clouzot's style and thematic concerns before the ill-fated INFERNO project. All we know is that he is concerned with paranoid sexual jealousy, he works his actors hard, and he is a giant of French cinema. Apparently, no one needs to make the case.

Our Gmunden correspondent and I, embarrassed to have never seen a Clouzot film between us, were somewhat surprised by the oblique nature of this documentary, and felt rather excluded by its elitist tone. Nonetheless, we were fascinated by the actual substance of what it offered - a well-edited, lovingly restored set of clips from Clouzot's test shots and experimental footage. Clouzot seems to have been obsessed with how to depict the aural and visual experience of sexual jealousy. So we have experimental footage taken from the husband's perspective: he fixates on his wife's face, body, lips, smoking, flirting....This is Serge Bromberg's coup. In addition he makes another brilliant choice. Clouzot's footage has no sound. So, rather than dub in the script, clumsily and intrusively, Bromberg has used a sensitive score by Bruno Alexiu and recreated scenes using contemporary actors Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin. This has the effect of confronting the incomplete nature of the archive footage rather than trying to mask it. It is a very elegant choice, and one can't help but wonder what a remake featuring these two actors would look like!

HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERO played Cannes, Toronto and London 2009 and is on release in the UK and France. It opens on March 4th in the Netherlands and on March 10th in Belgium.

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