Resurrecting Cluzot’s ‘L’Enfer’ (1964) in 2020

In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot set out to change cinema with his film L’Enfer. He attempted to create images so striking, and implicate a story so defined by heartbreak and the human condition, that it proved too difficult a task to finish due to problems of funding, sickness, and management. The story follows the progression of a man overcome by the throws of desire, jealousy and obsession with his wife, whom he believes to be cheating on him. The complete transmission of an interpersonal story becomes internalized within the mind of Clouzot’s main character Marcel (Serge Reggiani), who begins to have apparitions of his wife, Odette (Romy Schneider), in hallucinogenic detail; these internalized images are the hallmark of Clouzot’s work, which utilized remarkably avant-garde visuals for cinema at the time. Unfortunately, despite the unique aesthetic of these shots, they were contained within the rolls of film left unused in storage.

The impossible irony of one of French cinema’s most prodigious projects of the twentieth century has left holes in the story. Cannes-awarded French filmmaker Claire Burger, French electronic music group Kompromat, and featured actress Adèle Haenel (recently acclaimed in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) have collaborated to reconstitute and recreate the legendary shots from L’Enfer in the music video for their song De Mon Âme à Ton Âme, (‘from my soul to your soul’)… but with a twist.

Image courtesy of France 2 Cinéma, KOMPROMAT Music

To the niche music-goers in France who follow the music group, it is no surprise that Kompromat would take on such a steep project. While the duo-group is quite new, music icons Rebeka Warrior (Julia Lanoë) and Vitalic (Pascal Arbez-Nicolas) have both played in other renowned groups in France, and opted for a more radical approach to music with their current collaboration. Kompromat, typically spelled out in Cyrillic characters, means “compromising material” in Russian; the extremist name is aptly used as a vehicle for the musicians to bring electronic music to France with songs written mostly in German, while also partially in French, recreating the atmosphere of a German dance club. They are a multicultural moving windstorm, jumping walls and breaking fences, brought to strip the French music scene of its conservative tendencies. It is only natural for them to take on the unfinished magnum opus of Clouzot.

Kompromat’s song deemed worthy by Burger of such a reconstitution, in English “From My Soul to Your Soul,” is a bilingual duet, with the French melodic lyrics sung by Rebeka Warrior and the unsung German lines recited by Adèle Haenel. It is an unconventional love song with the two figures not directly interacting but spiritually creating dialogue in different tongues and tones – the French taking on its stereotype as soothing and enrapturing, the German doing so equally with its more intense presence in the song.

While Clouzot’s L’Enfer is unfinished, the scenes available to the public are cinematographically coded to represent key elements of the film’s plot. In these, we see Romy Schneider – the heart and soul of the project – saturated in colorful streams of light, warped by image-altering technology, or doused in sparkles. Scenes in black and white are meant to be the normal, unaltered perception of the Marcel character (or the nuanced analysis that it is Clouzot himself), and the scenes revamped in color are psychotic illusions melded into a reel during his dissociation from reality.

Image courtesy of France 2 Cinéma, KOMPROMAT Music

Despite the fact that these images are beautiful, and emulate the precocious power of French cinema, L’Enfer was a film intended to show the dangerous side of love, fuelled by conflict, selfish desire, and objectification of a loved one. The audience discovers ultimately that Odette has been cheating on Marcel, and Marcel feels justified in the obsessive way he objectifies her; it is as if Marcel himself is harmless and the weight of the soul-crushing world exists solely to torment his life. Claire Burger, however, removes the ‘me versus you’ dichotomy, stripping the film of its fetishizing, exploitative narrative, all while still guarding the epochal images and motifs from the original project. She does this by allocating most of Odette’s sequences to Haenel, but also allocating some to Rebeka Warrior, so they are not poised in opposition to one another. They could perhaps represent the duality of Romy Schneider’s character.

A music video that lasts four minutes with some changes would not be enough to completely overturn the preconceived ideas of Clouzot’s work. It is a classic, it has a tragic story – and French culture revels in artwork with a painful backstory. Yet, contained within such a short time, Burger handcrafts elements of lesbian eroticism so subtle that traditionalists would not even notice. Instead of positioning the camera 180 degrees to the actors’ center of gravity, she points the cameras upwards from below, to represent the lustful relationship of two bodies. The objective of this would be to staggeringly represent the gaze of someone from below coming up – unmistakably characterizing the prevailing lesbian relationship between the two women. She also allows the women the freedom to express their emotions, which Clouzot failed to do. She gives them the space to scream, to yell, to laugh, to desire. They are seductive, but only in the way that it allows them to please themselves and not just the viewer.

Image courtesy of France 2 Cinéma, KOMPROMAT Music

The purpose of reworking old images is to breathe life into new perspectives of art. It is clear to both the team and viewers alike that while Haenel bears a striking resemblance to Schneider, physically and culturally (they both have Austrian heritage and they have both been widely acclaimed in French cinema), abiding strictly by motifs and two-dimensional images is not enough to create inventive art. In addition to the “me versus you” trope repressed in the music video, there is a proposal of both a heterosexual relationship between Haenel and Vitalic, and a homosexual relationship between Warrior and Haenel. Following suit from the song, it seems the homosexual relationship prevails as Vitalic in the marital image is replaced by Warrior. Relaxation, smirks and augmented chemistry between the two women show the increased comfort in the pair as it is juxtaposed with the Vitalic and Haenel duo. It’s all fun and games, but exhibits the power of subverting stereotypes in cinema. Burger subtly but successfully is able to reproduce and alter the hailed aesthetics, creating a new story out of the old work, using more progressive ideas, and reduce the presence of toxic masculinity. Though it is merely a short clip, the music video for ‘De Mon Âme à Ton Âme’ provides more imaginative cinematic ideas than Clouzot’s unfinished ‘masterpiece’ ever could.