Monday, February 28, 2011

Documentaries on French Film Directors

I saw two documentaries at the Roxie about French directors in February.

Two in the Wave; directed by Emmanuel Laurent; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno; directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

Two in the Wave documented the relationship between Fran├žois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno told the story of the making of Clouzot's L'Enfer (Inferno). Clouzot was plagued with indecision (possibly the result of a nervous breakdown) during the filming and never completed the film despite shooting 15 hours of footage. Salon.com calls it "The Greatest Film Never Made."

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It was until recently that I learned that Truffaut, Godard and Claude Chabrol wrote for Cahiers du Cinema at the same time in the 1950s. It was during this period that Truffaut and Godard became friends. Truffaut's The 400 Blows was the hit of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and made him world famous. Using his newfound influence, Truffaut helped to get Godard's Breathless made in 1960. Godard and Truffaut share screenwriting credits on Breathless. Throughout the 1960s, Godard and Truffaut were preeminent in French cinema.

The two remained friends and shared politcal causes until the late 1960s when Godard's politics and film took on more radical elements. A series of public letters between the men created a permanent break in their relationship. Truffaut and Godard did not speak for the last decade or so of Truffaut's life (he died in 1984).

Two in the Wave documented the men's relationship and their films. It didn't add too much insight but presented the known facts in a clear manner so that people unfamiliar with their shared history (like me) could get an introduction.

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Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno was more provocative. Clouzot was best known for Diabolique (1955) but had a string of well received French films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, Columbia Pictures gave him an unlimited budget to film his screenplay for Inferno. He cast popular German film star Romy Schneider as the female lead and Italian born Serge Reggiani as her jealous husband. The plot involved the husband's increasing jealous and ultimately madness.

Given Clouzot's unlimited budget and the discipline he showed on past films, much was expected from Inferno. Instead, Clouzot dithered during filming. He was unable to make decisions, argued with his actors and endlessly shot take after take of certain scenes. Clouzot had suffered from clinical depression earlier in his life. During the making of Inferno, Clouzot appeared to be suffering from some mental condition that made him obsessive about every aspect film to the point that nothing could get made. Reggiani walked off the set after several weeks of shooting and soon thereafter, Clouzot suffered a heart attack. The film was abandoned shortly afterwards.

Director Serge Bromberg was trapped in a elevator for two hours with Clouzot's widow. She told him about Inferno and the 185 reels of film she still had in storage. Bromberg decided to make a documentary on the film that never was. Bromberg used some of the original footage as well as interviews with surviving cast and crew (director Costa Gavras was part of the crew) and actors to enact scenes which weren't filmed.

Bromberg use of Clouzot's original footage is spectacular. Clouzot mixed tinted lenses and reverse motion photography to create stunning images. There are scenes of Schneider water skiing which a submlime as her hips sway when she makes a turn. In other scenes, she wears blue lipstick that give her an otherwordly appearance and must have been used to express her husband's descent into madness. Bromberg samples an array of Clouzot's footage and the effect on me was almost like an inferno. I longed to see the entire film which of course is impossible. Clouzot was clearly as master and Inferno could have been a masterpiece if he had held it together long enough to complete it. As for Schneider, I wonder if I can ever see a film with her without comparing it to her scenes in Inferno.

Romy Schneider in Inferno

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