Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno,’ opening tonight at the Film Forum, is the most remarkable case of cinematic exhumation I’ve ever seen. Imagine if, when Francis Ford Coppola had his heart attack halfway through shooting Apocalypse Now, the production got canceled and all the footage lost—and then, 40 years later, rediscovered.

L’Enfer was one of cinema’s black holes, whispered of but never seen. Then Serge Bromberg chanced to get stuck in a Parisian elevator with Clouzot’s widow and learned that 185 cans of film—13 hours of intriguing footage and downright mind-blowing test shots—were sitting in storage. Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea sifted this hoard, scoured Clouzot’s notes and storyboards, interviewed surviving crew members, filmed two terrific actors reading from Clouzot’s script (no original sound survived), added suitably atmospheric original music, and voilà—a riveting mix of documentary and re-creation that goes deep into the darkness at the heart of the artistic process.

In 1964, Clouzot was sitting, precariously, on top of the cinematic world. His films were sensations in France.Two haunting thrillers, Les Diaboliques and Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), excited Hollywood, which later remade them. Columbia gave him total control and an open budget to make L’Enfer.

But Clouzot was a man haunted—by his wife’s early death (from a heart attack, weirdly echoing the wife she played in Les Diaboliques), by upstart New Wave critics who saw in him all that was wrong with the old wave, and by the dread and pessimism that pervade his films. He determined to out-new the New Wavers with a truly revolutionary, experimental film—and poured all his own obsessions into this tale of a hotelier who imagines his carefree younger wife shagging everyone in sight. All the while filming against a deadline straight out of The Wages of Fear: The lake he’d chosen as his setting was about to be drained.

Clouzot filmed the literal action in black-and-white and his protagonist’s hallucinations and fantasies in color. And such color—film reversed so that the lake turns blood-red under Schneider’s skis while the actors are painted to remain “normal.” Lighting that harks back to Caligari. Op-art and proto-psychedelic effects that anticipate 2001: A Space Odyssey, still four years away. It’s the trip sequence, only sexy.

Clouzot was plainly obsessed, Hitchcock-style, with his starlet, the fearless Romy Schneider (whose later tragedy lends yet another dimension to the viewing). He bathes, explores, teases, and torments every pore of her face, every flick of her eye and tongue, with fluid light.

Of course L’Enfer unraveled, just like its protagonist’s mind (and, evidently, Clouzot’s). Such a mania could not end well, nor such a film get finished. If it had, the best stuff would never have made it to the screen. We may get more of Clouzot’s vision this way. Out of long-ago disaster, a minor masterwork is born.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno,’ by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, shows Dec 17-23 at 7 and 9pm at the Northwest Film Forum.
With this film only, the Film Forum offers a special Pique-Nique, classic French sandwiches ("le Jean-Paul Belmondo," "le Brigitte Bardot") and fixings for in-theater dégustation. Pre-order required.

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