The French Nouvelle Vague stands as a blazing historical vindication of the critical vocation. Every time an over-rated artist seeks to rebuff a negative review by calling into question the motives and talents of a critic, critics can respond simply by mentioning the names of great critics who became great film directors. Directors like Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette. However, as brilliant as the Cahiers du Cinema directors undeniably were, there is an element of Year Zero about their fame. Was French cinema really in crisis in the late 1950s? Was Bazin correct to point to a tendency to the overly theatrical? Quite possibly but the Nouvelle Vague’s desire to relaunch French film was not without its casualties.
One of the most note-worthy casualties of the French Nouvelle Vague was Henri-Georges Clouzot. Clouzot was arguably the most talented of the French film directors who continued working throughout the German occupation. To this day, no film so perfectly captures the France’s deep and loathesome ambivalence towards the Nazis as his story of poison pen letters Le Corbeau (1943). Because of his association with the Nazi run film studio Continental Films, Clouzot was banned from directing by the French government and while he did return to direct such classics as Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), his reputation among French critics never completely recovered.
It is in this context that Clouzot secured an unlimited budget with which to make his film Inferno. Ostensibly a psychological thriller starring Romy Schneider, Inferno was a profoundly experimental film whose disastrously abandoned production process was littered with all kinds of new and experimental techniques designed to revitalise Clouzot’s reputation and place him at the very forefront of the newly revitalised French Cinema. As Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea revealed in their documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009), Clouzot used strange lenses, dyed entire lakes and daubed actresses with strange make-up in order to create a myriad of weird and wonderful visual effects. He also shot hour upon hour of bizarre objects and visual illusions dreamt up by a team of artists. However, what is most fascinating about Medrea and Bromberg’s documentary itself is that, while we know that Clouzot had a script and that this script was later made into one of Claude Chabrol’s more successful later films (1994’s Hell), we really get very little information as to what it was that Inferno was supposed to be about. Indeed, by focusing primarily upon the production process, Bromberg and Medrea manage to separate the technical aspects of Inferno from its more human and semantic aspects giving us images without context and effects without plot.
This filleted version of Clouzot’s unfinished film is eerily similar to the latest film by Irreversible director Gaspar Noe. Enter the Void is just as much a work of vulgar spectacle as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) or Avatar (2009). At times technically stunning, the film shows the hallmarks of a profoundly experimental production process hindered by an equally profound disregard for the human and semantic elements of the artistic process. Elements such as a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative themes and thought provoking sub-text. Elements almost entirely absent from Enter the Void.