At the start of 1994, travelling through France, I saw a particularly chilling movie poster adorning every billboard and train station platform. It was a wedding photo of a blissful couple (Emmanuelle Béart and François Cluzet), inscribed starkly with the words L'Enfer – literally, Hell. There was almost a punk frisson to this conjuncture – as if it marked the public defiling of a sacrosanct social stereotype.
Almost three years later, this extraordinary film by Claude Chabrol, freely translated as Torment, arrived in Australia. Chabrol is a very uneven filmmaker with an odd, eccentric career. I had stern things to say about him on the occasion of La Cérémonie (A Judgment in Stone, 1995), which I found an empty, overrated number. But L'Enfer is an infinitely better piece of work.
It is based on a script written in 1964 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of Les Diaboliques (1955 – remade very badly as Diabolique ) and The Wages of Fear (1953). Clouzot began filming it in that era, but the project was abandoned and he died shortly afterwards.
The single-minded topic of this story is paranoid sexual jealousy: how it destroys a marriage, and how it leads to violent insanity. It is as if Chabrol decided to take the most incendiary element of Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) – Jake La Motta's suspicion about his wife's infidelity – and expand it into an entire film.
It is a relentless, jagged, very modern movie, locked up in the fractured subjectivity of the irrational Paul (Cluzet). Chabrol plunges us, after scarcely three minutes of initial, marital happiness, into the drama of Paul's doubts and accusations. Nelly (Béart) is less a real person than Paul's fuzzy, fantasised projection: she's by turns desirable, duplicitous, victimised and enigmatic. As in many stories of male jealousy, Chabrol neither confirms nor denies for us Nelly's innocence or guilt. That killing ambiguity serves to draw us into the prevailing insanity.
As the comparison with Scorsese suggests, L'Enfer is an exploration of masculine obsession – as a key to the realm of tortured masculinity and its sick, psychic diseases. As in Scorsese's Casino (1995) or Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), masculine obsession has a dogged, repetitive, compulsive structure: it keeps working back over the same haunting visions, the same unquenchable doubts, always exhibiting the same excruciating symptoms and behaviours; it gets nowhere. There are moments of possible reprieve when Paul can admit that his jealousy is killing him; scenes where Nelly's confusion and pain seems to genuinely affect him. And there are powerful instances of sensuality that allow us to glimpse the true bond that could potentially exist between these partners. But these moments disappear almost instantly, as Paul drags Nelly back into the circle of his psychosis.
Films about obsession such as Casino and Bad Lieutenant stay close to their heroes but take a certain cool, blank distance from their actions – the camera observes these actions, these gauntlets of grim decline, with a certain dispassion. L'Enfer, while deliberately repetitive and circular in its narrative structure, is more akin to Raging Bull or Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). Chabrol invites (or coaxes) us to adopt the literal point-of-view of the mad male hero, through his eyes.
Rarely has a film captured so well that agonised, obsessed look at someone you desire hopelessly but also suspect; someone you want desperately to love and want you of their own free will – but, at the same time, you want to control and possess them utterly. There's a fantastic scene in this movie when Nelly is undressing, and Paul is watching her; suddenly she stops and stares back at him, and says: "I see something in your eyes – you're jealous." And that first time she sees it, she's delighted and flattered. Soon enough, she'll be completely trapped.
Chabrol compels us to gaze, long and hard, at behaviour that is almost unbearable to behold. There are moments when Paul admits that his jealousy is killing him; scenes where Nelly's confusion and pain seems to genuinely affect him; and powerful instances of sensuality that allow us to glimpse the true bond that could potentially exist between these partners.
But, for the most part, we are in absolute hell with Paul and Nelly. We never get outside this relationship, never the safe distance of some wider perspective. This is an extreme and singular movie; it deliberately dispenses with any psychological or political explanation for the male madness that it shows.
And that too, has an almost punk frisson, like the cheeky French poster for the film. As I watching L'Enfer, I had an epiphany: I realised, this is one of the things that the cinema was made for, this absolute amorality that comes with locking us inside the head of one sick, disturbed individual. Chabrol, as has often been said, practices a kind of cinema of cruelty, and it's never been crueller than here. It's a thrillingly virtuosic film, superbly sustained, quite hallucinatory in its emotional effect on the audience. And it's an all-stops-out spectacle, as exciting and suspenseful in its way as the most spectacular action-thriller. But it's also eviscerating and very, very disturbing. L'Enfer is a brilliantly sadistic, sobering and unnerving spectacle.
© Adrian Martin July/November 1996