Thursday, March 4, 2010

Inferno and a Prophet (Montreal Film Diary)

One way of approaching Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009) is to look at it as two movies for the price of one. On the one hand, it's a documentary account of the making of a film by Clouzot, using interviews, narration, and archival footage to explain why the project was never completed. On the other, it uses the footage Clouzot shot in 1964, as well as camera tests and dramatic reenactments (shot by Bromberg and Medrea), to give viewers a sense of what the film might've been like. However, unlike its nearest precedent, It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993), where the archival material assembled by Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson provided an introduction to the footage shot by Welles in the 1940s (and edited after his death by Ed Marx), in this film, Clouzot's material is intercut with interviews and archival footage. In other words, while Welles' material in It's All True retains its autonomy, here Clouzot's footage is integrated into the structure of the documentary, turning it into another form of archival material.

The plot of Clouzot's L'Enfer echoes Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy (1957) in its story of a husband who suspects his wife of cheating based on ambiguous evidence. Inspired by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), Clouzot intended to incorporate into the film several dream sequences in which the distorted images were symbolic of the husband's distorted view of reality. Prior to shooting, Clouzot and his team spent months doing camera tests, experimenting with a wide variety of techniques, including multiple exposures, lights that circle around the actors' faces, and inverted colours with the actors wearing green-grey makeup so that their skin tones come out looking normal. The tests resemble a cross between the nightmare sequences in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a Kenneth Anger film, and a late '60s psychedelic head movie.

As in It's All True, the audio from Clouzot's film didn't survive, apart from a twenty minute test of distorted sound effects he intended to use in the dream sequences. (Technically, there never was a soundtrack for Welles' film, since the project was cancelled before he had time to write the narration, much less record it.) Some of Clouzot's sequences, such as the husband (Serge Reggiani) following his wife (Romy Scheider) through the streets of a tiny resort town, are carried entirely by the images, so Bromberg and Medrea have only to add foley effects and a George Delerue-esque score by Bruno Alexiu. For the dialogue scenes, they have actors (Bérénice Bejo as the wife and Jacques Gamblin as the husband) deliver the lines in a generic theatrical setting. Conversely, when the filmmakers interview members of Clouzot's crew, they're seated in front of a green screen with clips from the film and the camera tests playing behind them.

Ultimately, the documentary is of limited interest. The tests Clouzot shot, though sometimes bewitching, are hardly groundbreaking. After all, filmmakers like Lang have been incorporating avant-garde techniques into narrative films since the silent era. (More recently, one can point to some of the trippy effects Martin Scorsese uses in Shutter Island [2010] during the dream sequences, such as Leonardo DiCapprio inhaling a puff of smoke in reverse motion.) Perhaps if Clouzot's footage were more exciting, his inability to complete the film would take on the tragic dimension of a lost movie, like Welles' unfinished Don Quixote. As it stands, the documentary should appeal to people who are interested in film technique, and are intrigued by Clouzot's experiments, but the behind-the-scenes drama isn't very compelling, as it lacks a Quixotic director-hero for us to root for.

The moral seems to be that Clouzot, beginning with a simple idea, lost his bearings during the months and months of camera tests. So when it came time to shoot, he no longer knew what he wanted. Early in the film we're told that Clouzot's American backers, after looking at some of the early tests, decided to give the director an unlimited budget--effectively handing him the rope to hang himself with. Not an easy director to work for at the best of times, Clouzot became truly insufferable on the making of L'Enfer. The director had three camera crews, so that while he was working with his actors on one shot, the other crews could do the next two set-ups, or at least that was idea. What actually happened is that Clouzot wanted to supervise everything, so the other two crews would have to wait while he watched one working. It's fitting that Clouzot's inspiration was 8 1/2, which is about a director who can't make a film; the difference is that Fellini's film is only about a confused director, not the product of one.

Since narrative films are generally less fun to write about, I'll be brief about some of the other films that I saw on my last trip to Montreal:

Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells (2009) is a mind-numbing animated feature from Ireland, set during the time of the Viking invasions. The story essentially boils down to a conflict of father-figures: Will the young hero obey his strict uncle, or follow his dream of becoming a manuscript illuminator with the help of a laid back monk? The only slight pleasures in this long 75-minute film are the two-dimensional animation style, which looks like a cross between a medieval religious icon and a Saturday morning cartoon, and the sound of Brendan Gleeson's voice.

The Messenger (2009) is the disappointingly conventional directorial debut of Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay for Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (2007) A returning soldier (Ben Foster) with three months left in the service is assigned to casualty notification under the guidance of an older officer (Woody Harrelson), who believes in doing things by the book (i.e., no touching!). But Foster is more empathetic and gets involved in the life of a young widow (Samantha Morton). Romance and male bonding ensue. Since Moverman isn't doing anything creative stylistically, the entire enterprise rests on the story and characters, which are both terminally familiar.

Jacques Audiard's Un prophète (2009) is a novelistic crime saga set in a French prison. A nineteen year old Arab (Tahar Rahim) arrives in the joint, and is aggressively recruited by a Corsican gangster (Neils Arestrup) to whack a snitch in exchange for protection. Male bonding definitely does not ensue. The film's principal pleasures are the patient unfolding of a complicated narrative spanning several years, and the precise understanding of the ins and outs of the criminal underworld, which both invite comparisons with Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Although the drab institutional setting of this film is a world apart from the expensive period furnishings of a Hollywood film like Scorsese's, Audiard offsets his documentary aesthetic (handheld camera, shallow depth of field) with magic realist touches. From time to time, the protagonist is visited by the ghost of the dead snitch, who tells him the future. A must-see.

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