L'enfer (1994)


director/writer: Claude Chabrol; screenwriter: Henri-Georges Clouzot/from the book by Jose-Andre Lacour; cinematographer: Bernard Zitzermann; editor: Monique Fardoulis; music: Matthieu Chabrol; cast: Emmanuelle Beart (Nelly), Francois Cluzet (Paul), Nathalie Cardone (Marylin), Andre Wilms (Doctor Arnoux), Marc Lavoine (Martineau), Dora Doll (Mme Chabert), Jean-Pierre Cassel (M. Vernon); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Marin Karmitz; Canal Plus; 1994-France-in French with English subtitles)

It’s a riveting study in psychological perversion done with a taut, razor-sharp style, by a witty director who is at the top-of-his game.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Claude Chabrol (“L’Boucher”) adapted a rediscovered script from a 1964 Henri-Georges Clouzot film he started but never finished. It’s a French psychological drama/black comedy based on the book by the Belgian Jose-Andre Lacour, about a man who is tortured by his jealousy. L’Enfer ran into a series of bad luck incidents during the initial shoot, including Clouzot’s heart attack after six days’ shooting. The film was halted, and even though Clouzot eventually recovered and lived until 1977– he never completed the film. It took about thirty years to finally finish it.

Chabrol does a nice job of getting at the gripping pathological obsessions of his main male character Paul (Francois Cluzet), who is the owner of a luxurious lakeside hotel he recently purchased after working there for 15 years. He’s a real charmer and industrious, but someone who can’t control his insanely jealous thoughts and how stressed-out he has become because he had to go into debt to buy the joint. Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) is his beautiful and devoted and free-spirited newlywed wife and mother of his baby son, who takes pleasure in helping him make his dream spot become a success. They are a couple, by all accounts, who are madly in love, with everything to look forward to. It’s also good that their hotel is located on the gorgeous site of Lake Saint-Ferreol in Lauraguais, France.

Listening to irrational nagging voices inside his head, Paul mistakenly suspects his wife of having an affair with the local garage mechanic after he spots her harmlessly looking at slides of him. Paul becomes convinced his wife is cheating, as he slowly and painfully goes insane. Not helping matters, is that he begins drinking heavily and taking huge amounts of sleeping pills. His breakdown leads to a personal hell and their married life becomes unbearable, as the wife pleads with him to trust her.

Everything is played out in Paul’s head, so the film is unrelenting in its bleak depiction of the soul and man’s unfathomable inner being. Chabrol’s nihilistic viewpoint of mankind is reinforced by the steady downward spiral of the relationship, leading to public outbursts and a bourgeois married life of unmitigating misery. Though Nelly is not the classic abused wife, as she knows how to toy with her husband’s jealousy in order to torture him further.

It’s a riveting study in psychological perversion done with a taut, razor-sharp style, by a witty director who is at the top-of-his game. Chabrol is able to plumb the depths of the sick mind to gain insight into his subject’s insecurities. Paul has convinced himself that someone as plain looking as himself cannot hold onto a woman as ravishing as his wife. Chabrol keeps things unresolved, even at the end. As we can only surmise what will happen to the couple in the face of the rising tension. The film’s title translates as hell, which explains where we are going with this Shakespearean Othello-like drama.