Blown to Bits
by HELEN SCHUMACHER
In the 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea unravel 185 cans of recovered footage from Clouzot’s unfinished project L’Enfer to tell the story of the legendary French director’s attempt to make what he saw as his most important film. Given an unlimited budget by Columbia Studios and inspired by the op art of the ‘60s, Clouzot set out to make a work whose innovation would surpass that of his young New Wave rivals and once again establish him as a pioneering filmmaker.
Set in a lakeside resort town, the film is about a jealous husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that his wife Odette, played by Romy Schneider, is cheating on him. It is through Marcel’s visions of his wife's infidelity that Clouzot endeavored to change the visual vocabulary of cinema. The surviving footage is hypnotic and dazzling.
Schneider is captivating. A siren covered in olive oil and glitter, she patiently seduces Clouzot's camera, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke under pulsating blue and yellow lights — a nightmarish vision of sensuality.
Clouzot and his team of special effects engineers spent months conducting camera tests for L'Enfer. The tests sought to construct a world deformed by jealousy — a discomforting one in which the viewer loses his or her spatial bearings. Relying heavily on kinetic sculpture, op art, mod fashions, and repetition of images and phrases, the crew toiled away in experimentation, becoming what one cameraman calls "experts at optical coitus." In palette and tactility, their kaleidoscopic imagery often resembles the gory seductiveness of a Marilyn Minter artwork.
L'Enfer was never finished. Reggiani quit the project, Clouzot had a heart attack while filming a scene, and the reservoir where the film was set was drained. But these were just the dramatic final blows to a career dogged by fear.
There had always been a sense of foreboding surrounding Clouzot. It started when, at the age of 27, the director was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium. Clouzot spent the next four years of his life reading voraciously and studying story and plot, and confronting the absoluteness of mortality.
After being released from the hospital, Clouzot found that the German occupation and the subsequent flight of France's Jewish filmmakers had left the country's film industry in shambles. However, through a contact from his previous job as a script translator in Berlin, he got work at a Nazi-run studio, the same one that would produce his first two full-length films, L'Assassin Habite au 21 and Le Corbeau.
Le Corbeau, released in 1943, is a deeply paranoid film. The psychic terror of the sanatorium and the horror of World War II had moved Clouzot's work in a dark direction. Opening on an anonymous provincial setting, a town’s new doctor begins receiving poison-pen letters denouncing him as an adulterer and abortionist. Soon everyone in town is receiving the letters, spurring forth a fervor of accusations at each other. The local psychologist compares the villagers' rising levels of fear and suspicion to a fever — a metaphor that occurs throughout Clouzot’s work. The French public was outraged over its critique of the bourgeois paranoia and informant culture of the occupation. After the war, Clouzot's work for the German studio got him blacklisted for several years.
Clouzot resented this punishment, having already had his career sidelined by sickness. He made his comeback, though. The director's mastery of suspense and character earned him ranking among France's premier directors of the time. He was referred to as the French Hitchcock — mostly because of his ability to keep audiences guessing and build tension, but also because of his brutal treatment of actors.
If the script had his characters eating rotten fish (as in Diabolique), then they ate it in real life; if his character was getting manhandled by the police (as in Quai des Orfèvres), then Clouzot would slap him around before the next take. In La Verite, when Brigitte Bardot’s character was supposed to have overdosed on sleeping pills, Clouzot slipped her sleeping pills, saying they were aspirin, to get the dazed, drowsy look her character needed. His manipulation at times was sadistic. His first wife, Vera Clouzot, who — like the schoolteacher she played in Diabolique — suffered from a weak heart, was practically worked to death by her husband.
During the filming of Les Espions, Clouzot made Vera film a physically taxing scene of her character’s mental breakdown 48 times only to then use one of the first takes. She died of a heart attack a few years later at the age of 46.
Vera was Brazilian, and she and Clouzot traveled to South America for their honeymoon. The trip helped inspire Clouzot to create Wages of Fear in 1953. A white-knuckle thriller trimmed of all unnecessary frills, Wages of Fear takes place in the fictional Venezuelan town of Las Piedras. In it, a group of expatriate men pass their days in the shade of the village's one bar while scheming of ways to make it out of the isolated region. Their big break comes when the Southern Oil Company, an American company in trouble for their exploitation of the native population, decides to hire a few non-union men for $2,000 to drive two trucks stocked with nitroglycerine across the mountains to an inflamed rig that needs the explosives in order to stop the blaze. Selected for the job are friends Mario and Jo in one truck and the caricatured Italian Luigi and Dutch Bimba in the other.
The majority of the film follows the four men as they rely on machismo and prayers to make it across washed-out roads, hairpin turns and petroleum bogs and claim their paycheck.
Wages of Fear seems prescient in its ability to foreshadow the career-long consumptive battle, both physical and mental, that led to Clouzot's downfall on the set of L’Enfer. In the film, again fear manifests itself as a physical ailment. Even if the men do manage to complete the journey, the stress of the mission is guaranteed to leave them changed. One prospective driver, a man from the oil fields of Texas who had seen the effects such a trip can have, ominously warns, "Once you have the fear, it's for life. Your hair turns grey and you shake like palsy."
Since leaving the sanatorium, Clouzot had been plagued by insomnia. As in his bedridden days, he used these sleepless nights to work on his movies. Crew members often complained about his habit of waking up them at 2 a.m. to work on the filmmaker’s latest idea. The lack of sleep made his collaborators resentful and it made Clouzot unpredictable and unstable. The anxiety that comes to one in the middle of the night can be insufferable, and it’s easy to imagine that Clouzot spent many of the nights worrying about the ridicule he had been receiving in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma regarding his detail-obsessed filmmaking. It’s a scenario that brings to mind the conversation between elder Jo to the younger Mario during their trek where Jo tells Mario that he lacks fear because he lacks imagination. “I see the explosion; I see myself blown to bits,” says Jo.
While filming L'Enfer, Clouzot tried to prove that illness could be controlled, that it could be mapped like coordinates on a grid, that “madness could be conceived as an equation.” In the end, what emerges from the documentary is the story of how a master of French cinema was undone by sickness. It tells of Clouzot's eventual defeat, not to the changing style of filmmaking, but to the pathological symptoms that had plagued him since entering adulthood.
Like a cinematic Marie Curie, whose experiments in radioactivity won her Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry but who later died from aplastic anemia brought on by working with the toxic elements, Clouzot became of victim of the emotions — jealousy, fear, paranoia — that, previously, he had expertly manipulated to create the work that made him such a celebrated filmmaker.
Henri-Georges Clouzot died in 1977 while listening to Hector Berlioz’s "The Damnation of Faust."
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