It’s as much fun as you’re going to have in a movie theater this year.
Had the unflagging perseverance of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings not shown them through their trying development prior to "Cloud Atlas," its existing pitch materials and visionary test footage likely would have elevated the project into cinema's tragic archive of could've beens. Like Samuel Fuller's haphazard, ash-covered collection of unproduced scripts, the absence of product, sitting idly by the raw materials required to construct one, can coat an enigmatic gloss over the entire endeavor.
Of course, "Cloud Atlas" has been released, and may -- for better or worse -- stand on its own two divisive feet. Tykwer and the Wachowski's can be pressed for answers to enigmas, and their deleted scenes and concepts will unexpectedly exist on future Blu-ray box sets. But what about those films of unresolved ambition, whose leaders have passed away, and their works left to colleagues' opinions of an intended "vision?"
These finds -- like the 2010 Brazilian excavation of "Metropolis" that provided the most complete version to date -- claim fascinating fragments but only satiate the need for resolution temporarily, and so lies the case with Henri-Georges Clouzot's abandoned 1963 film "L'Enfer (Inferno)." However, as directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medre contend in their hypnotic documentary, simply titled "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno," it is merely a film that will never exist that draws their obsessive focus.
Similar also to one of numerous meetings of serendipity in "Cloud Atlas," a stalled elevator encounter between Bromberg and Ines Clouzot, the director's widow, proved responsible for everything that followed. After the pair quickly passed small talk, Ines just as promptly clued Bromberg in on a cache of film comprising her husband's lost work on "Inferno:" 85 film canisters collecting dust, with some 15 hours of rarely glimpsed footage offering a peek into Clouzot's secretive process. The choice was, thankfully, rather simple for Bromberg. However, behind the mysterious images were some well-known facts. Following a four-year absence from filmmaking after capturing Brigitte Bardot's finest performance in 1960's "La Verite," the director then decided to undertake a daring exploration of all-consuming jealousy entitled "L'Enfer." An appealing cast soon came together -- Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani were to play a couple centered in work and life at a viaduct-bordered hotel, only to encounter two objects of lust and obsession (played by Dany Carrel and Jean-Claude Bercq) who threaten to dissolve their marriage entirely. The script was written by Clouzot, the budget and locations were secured. Still, unlike the considered, meticulous approach seen in the productions of "Quai des Orfèvres" or "The Wages Of Fear," the director instead gathered a skeleton crew and began a series of experimentations toward an entirely emotional, "8 1/2"-inspired film grammar.
These snatches of test footage are fascinating, the soundless cinematography fractured by super-impositions, alterations in analogous color and film stock, flash cuts searing close-ups of terror-stricken eyes. The content in these snippets remain largely uniform: Reggiani, Schneider or some volunteered crew member static in frame, lustily glancing at the camera as the men behind it twist the image into abstraction and back again. It recalls the otherworldly fascination of Douglas Trumbull's cosmic trials, except Clouzot boldly attempts the same results with a group of trusting actors and behind-the-scenes craftsman. Bromberg and Medrea select a small group of those individuals, including art director Jacques Douy, sound mixer Jean-Louis Ducarme, and filmmaker Costas Gavras to comment on the project, and these accounts naturally possess the informal thrill of a film production's off-kilter reality. One crew-member recalls how Clouzot, restless from his incessant insomnia, scoured nightly the halls of their hotel, and if the unaware soul sleepily stumbled into his path, they would promptly be whisked away to discuss the following day's details. DP Claude Renoir even because acutely timed to this routine, sneaking off into the toilets for a swift escape from creative imprisonment.
Along with details of Clouzot's passionate quirks, the film also poses a running source of amusement within the production's actual progress. From the footage captured, it seems no more than three related scenes ever seem to have been filmed: Reggiani spying on Schneider as she cavorts with Bercq on a boat, fantasies of the same scenario tugging at Marcel's emotions, and leering views elsewhere of Dany Carrel as his knee-jerk retribution. To fill in the sizable gaps, actors Jacques Gamblin and Berenice Bejo (of "The Artist" fame) step into a bare set similar to that of Lars von Trier's "Dogville," and channel Reggiani and Schneider's performances in order to grasp for the heft of Clouzot's emotional story. Their depictions strike somewhere between informative and minor, but the effort is appreciated nonetheless.
Bromberg and Medrea extend their influence over Clouzot's work one step further still, when, for the last ten minutes of the film, they eschew any commentary in favor of letting a self-assembled portion of "Inferno" run, using their own soundtrack, foley work, and Gamblin and Bejo's acting to create an unfinished blueprint. At last, the germs of what afforded Clouzot his major international acclaim begin to take shape, as his instinctual awareness of visual language becomes immediately apparent. It still feels false, of course; much of the narrative rhythms stem unavoidably from a facsimile of Clouzot's implied direction, and the bombastic music lies high in the mix, attempting to wash the viewer along past the gaps in story. And perhaps a flawed third-party recollection of "Inferno" is the best altogether outcome, since before the heart attack that rendered Clouzot and the project too injured to continue, he might have just burnt the footage from all the frustration it caused.
For another creative type thwarted by the perils of filmmaking, Salman Rushdie -- following the collapse of a planned film adaptation of "Midnight's Children" -- observed, "There's nothing as painful as wasted work, unless it be seeing the disappointment on the faces of people who have spent months and years working on your work's behalf." Bromberg and Medrea have delivered with their documentary a marvelous tribute to one of Clouzot's rare misfires, but it is through the gallery of disappointed faces that they pick up just a hint of relief overall.