Impossible Cinema

By Robert Barry

henri-georges-clouzots-inferno-serge-bromberg.jpgHenri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

The new film by documentarist and film archivist, Serge Bromberg, entitled Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno inhabits a peculiar genre: not quite a remake, not quite a documentary charting the making-of some classic work, rather it details, and to some extent reconstructs, another, absent, film which was never completed (in this case, the film Inferno, directed by French auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot). The presence of Bromberg's film thus marks the absence of another, signalling its practical impossibility. Following Jean Baudrillard, we might say that Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is not the simulation of some object, but a simulacram, copy without original, the sign of an impossible real.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is not quite alone in this strange territory, but shares the above stated feature with a number of other films, each in their own way just as strange: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Notes for an African Oresteia, Lars von Trier's Epidemic, and Ozgur Uyanik's Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker'. Each film offers us, in effect, three films. There is the film in question (Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno); the fragmentary, absent 'original' (Inferno); and a third, created, as it were, virtually, somewhere between the two: the ideal film, the film that does not exist because it could not exist (due usually to some tremendous excess or structural deficiency). The negotiation between the first of these two thus creates retroactively the third in potentia, as always-already absent-presence.

In Notes for an African Oresteia, Pasolini records himself travelling around Uganda and Tanzania, filming possible locations and possible cast members, interviewing local experts, and sketching out his ideas, in voice-over, for script and structure of a film to be set in Africa, based on the three part tragedy by Aeschylus. In the film, Pasolini conducts a kind of seminar with a group of African university students. He suggests to them that the significance of the Oresteia for modern Africa is in its depiction of the founding of a legal system governed by the rule of reason and trial by jury. The tragedy thus represents for Pasolini the beginnings of a kind of western democratic civilization, analogous to developments in postcolonial Africa. The young African students object that Pasolini is wrong to treat such a vast continent as a single unified edifice, and anyway what relevance should an ancient European text have for African society?

Though one should fully accept, and even repeat, this implicit accusation of covert racism against Pasolini, it is nonetheless possible to extract a more nuanced, Derridean reading. For what the bloody tumult of the Oresteia's plot reveals is the truth that the establishment of any rule of law requires a singular act of violence that is itself outside the law, and what the African students miss in Pasolini's reading is that the kind of 'civilization' that had been 'brought' to Africa was something of an ambiguous blessing - precisely a highly European idea of justice and civilization that, in effect, continued forms of colonisation by other means. In the end the film was never made - indeed, it seems clear from Enzo Siciliano's biography of Pasolini that it was probably never intended to be, with Notes for African Oresteia merely a low budget commission from a friend working in television, with no suggestion of any follow-up or further financing.

henri-georges-clouzots-inferno-serge-bromberg-2.jpgHenri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

, the second film of Lars von Trier's 'E' trilogy, was the result of a bet, made by von Trier to Claes Kastholm of the Danish Film Institute, that he could make a feature film for just a million Danish kroner. We see von Trier and his writing partner Niels Vørsel, filmed without any camera crew, struggling to write a script in five days after their previous screenplay, The Cop and the Whore, is mysteriously erased by the computer. The film they start to develop, and of which we are shown glimpses, with Wagner's Tannhäuser for its soundtrack and von Trier himself playing the lead, concerns the attempt of an idealistic young doctor to stem the spread of an epidemic across Europe which only succeeds in making matters worse and spreading the disease further. As their deadline approaches, with still only a scant outline of a script in their hands, Vørsel himself starts to develop the symptoms of a mysterious illness. It seems as though the epidemic has spread out of the pages of their script and into the 'real' world.

thus stands as a kind of paradoxical proof of the impossibility of von Trier's gambit despite that it's very existence must have, in fact, won him the bet. Although the film-within-a-film remains, and always was, entirely fictitious, and, like Pasolini, von Trier no doubt had no intention of ever really completing this doctor's story, what it strangely manages to achieve, for more than von Trier's later realist films, is a sort of entrance into the real. For Epidemic's final scene, Vørsel and von Trier hired a genuine hypnotist who proceeded, on camera, to take a hypnotic subject into the scripted outline of the film-within-a-film. What follows is one of the most harrowing scenes in Danish cinema, as the hypnotised subject becomes uncontrollably hysterical, convinced that she is in the plague-ridden world of the film, and beyond the power of the hypnotist to revive her. "You leave the film, you leave the film, Epidemic," repeats the hypnotist, only to be ignored as his subject continues screaming and crying, leaping up on the table, as the other guests in the room start to vomit, sick from the very fictional epidemic the script is concerned with. It is thus Epidemic's very excess over itself that prevents its own realisation.

More recently, a film called Resurrecting 'The Street Walker' screened at this year's Raindance Film Festival in London. A spoof documentary about a plucky young aspiring film-maker, James (played by James Powell), who, whilst cleaning out the basement of the offices of the production company he works for, discovers the abandoned reels of a half-finished video nasty called The Streetwalker. The plot turns nasty when our hero starts to suspect that The Streetwalker was in fact a snuff movie and, in a further twist, becomes increasingly obsessed with completing the film - to the extent of borrowing its 'snuff' techniques. Despite its intriguing premise, Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker’ ultimately fails as a film for precisely the opposite reason to James's failure in completing it. The salvaged footage we see from the 'original' Streetwalker film looks too amateurish, too much like it was filmed at the same time and in the same style as Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker', and thus fails to convince as fiction.

henri-georges-clouzots-inferno-serge-bromberg-3.jpgHenri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

To return to Inferno, the purpose of Bromberg's film seems to be to suggest that, despite the brilliance of Clouzot's conception, it was ultimately the excessive external demands of the production and Clouzot's own temperament that led to its unfullfillment. Fresh from his success at Venice with La Vérité, but under attack from the new school of criticism practiced at Cahiers du Cinéma, Clouzot declared his intention, "to dramatise the feelings of anxiety I have every night, that keep me awake," in what he admitted in a television interview would be a "pathological" film. From the very beginning of pre-production, things are getting "un peu Hollywoodien" having been promised an "unlimited budget" from the financiers at Columbia. After meticulous planning in an expensive hotel suite, the crew embarked on months of highly experimental camera tests, employing techniques from OpArt, dousing the cast in oil or glitter, and so forth.

When shooting finally began, with three cinematographers, each with a full crew of assistants, grips and electricians, the crew had just two weeks to film all the exteriors before a vast lake immediately outside the hotel around which the action revolves, was to be drained to produce hydro-electric power. Despite all the planning and storyboarding, Clouzot seemed ill-prepared and uncertain on set, continually experimenting with new techniques, adding more shots, insisting on further takes, and becoming increasingly demanding and impatient with his cast and crew. Romy Schneider, who was to play Odette in the film, remembers him as, "the most difficult director I have ever worked wih - a total perfectionist." After scarcely a week of shooting, lead actor Serge Reggiani walked off, suffering either from 'Maltese fever' of simply from too much Clouzot. Shortly afterwards, Clouzot himself suffered a heart attack and filming was abandoned, leaving behind over 13 hours of film. It would seem that Clouzot's vast ambitions finally got the better of him, only, when, in 1994, Claude Chabrol bought the script for Inferno and remade the film himself, he choose to end the picture on a titlecard reading, not the traditional 'The End' but rather "Without end . . ." as if to suggest the film itself was properly uncompletable.

henri-georges-clouzots-inferno-serge-bromberg-4.jpgHenri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

Looking at all four films together we find ourselves with a kind of fourfold structure that might be compared to a Gremasian semiotic square. On one axis we can say that Epidemic and Notes for an African Oresteia are both films made by the same director as the object film and concern its advance planning, whereas Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker' and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno were both made some time after the object film and by a different director. On another axis, it is clear that both Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker' and Epidemic are themselves works of fiction, whereas Notes for an African Oresteia and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno are both factual documentaries. Curiously it is the two films on opposite corners to each other, sharing nothing in common on either axis, Epidemic and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, that are both the most successful in themselves and the most successful at making us wish we had access to the missing film. The failure of Notes for an African Oresteia and Resurrecting 'The Streetwalker' comes down, in each case, to failing to make the object film appear sufficiently enticing, we thus never really mourn its loss, and the tragedy of its failure lacks pathos. In this respect, and on the evidence of Bromberg's documentary, there may be few greater cinematic tragedies than the failure of Inferno. Stunned by the imagery we are shown and the audacity of Clouzot's experimentation, one can hardly help but dream of the profound effects such a film might have had on the subsequent history of cinema. In the end, the French cinema of the 1960s was dominated by the free-wheeling naturalism of the nouvelle vague, marginalising in the process the cinéma fantastique which had been one of the mainstays of French cinema from Meliés to Cocteau via Feyder and Franju. Without Clouzot's impossible masterpiece, it would be a long time before French film regained its interest in magic.