Tuesday, November 3, 2015

L'Enfer (1994)

"I am so glad you are jealous! It proves you care for me..", sighs a lovelorn Nelly (the vivacious and seductive Emanuelle Beart) to her husband Paul (François Cluzet) in Claude Chabrol's "L'Enfer" (1994). Little does she know at this point that she would soon have to eat her words!

Chabrol's intense psychological drama adapted from Henri-Georges Clouzot's script of his unfinished film, explores with a finesse that is rare, the unwelcome transformation of a loving husband into an insanely possessive monster, with overwhelming jealousy completely consuming his psyche and clouding his ability to reason.

The film begins with a love affair that follows into a healthy marriage rather quickly in a very buoyant manner. Paul seems to be a nice, fun-loving guy, happy with his lake side holiday resort business with a good staff and good friends around to keep the place running and lively. Nelly only adds to the liveliness with her spunky charm and smouldering hot looks, replete with that sensuous cherry-red lip-gloss pout!

Business seems to be as usual, until one of Nelly's harmless visits to the beach with some friends plants a poisonous seed in Paul's mind about her amorous involvement with Martineau (Marc Lavoine), a friend and garage owner. Paul soon begins to fill unwarranted blanks about information innocuously withheld from him, and before we know it, the ball of an unhealthy transformation has been set a-rolling. It is not too long before Paul begins to play detective and follows his wife around, thinking ugly thoughts of his wife's liaisons with not only Martineau, but practically every man around his resort; all based on surmise, of course, and no concrete evidence, gradually letting himself slip into a seemingly irreparable psychosis.

Chabrol finds there is absolutely no time to waste, and very quickly gets the happier days of the couple's lives out of the way. The first seed is sown early enough, and the taut screenplay almost instantly picks up its momentum. With each of Paul's doubts, the viewer begins to question Nelly's movements, especially since we only get glimpses of her initially. There are places she goes, and Paul is blissfully unaware, only learning about her whereabouts from someone else. Could Nelly be lying to him or withholding information from him? Chabrol keeps the ambiguity afloat and never makes it clear as to whether it is a deliberate act or just Nelly's harmless gesture of sparing her husband the tiny details.

But there is also the fact, well presented, that perhaps Paul's busy and demanding life makes him see less of her. As a result they possibly miss out on the smaller communication, a habit that perhaps persists and grows. A healthy communication is the cornerstone of mutual trust in a relationship. In an early scene, Chabrol gives a subtle hint of how this vital aspect could be lacking in case of this couple, thereby making their bond rather fragile. Paul's son takes his baby steps and he calls out to Nelly and announces joyfully that their son has learned to walk. Nelly walks in casually, smiles and replies, "I already know he is walking"! Likewise, Paul misses out on several other details, stuff that is perhaps inadvertently kept from Paul, leading to the misunderstanding.

One thing leads to another, of course and mountains are made out of mole hills. A friendly meet between Nelly and Martineau manifests as a sexual encounter in Paul's head. Could it really have happened? Or is he only letting his imagination run wild? In one particularly powerful scene of a group viewing of a home movie, this aspect is made clear. But that doesn't exonerate all those other times. Chabrol doesn't give us anything to prove that Nelly is not cheating on her husband, but we are never given evidence of the opposite either. The air of doubt is elegantly balanced, in a film that may otherwise have been a very one-dimensional story of an over-jealous, obsessive husband, although the narrative may make it seem that way.

Where Chabrol succeeds is in not making Nelly an epitome of innocence, thereby making sympathies sway either side, even during those extreme outbursts of melancholy. That lip gloss never fades, neither does that fashionably sexy dressing sense. Those mildly flirtatious and playful mannerisms never die, although the latter part is only a facet of her personality. In a twisty manner, it even becomes ambiguous as to whether Nelly is telling the truth or merely telling Paul things that he wants to hear, only to spare herself the avalanche of cross-questioning. At one point she does mention that she married him for the money. But was that statement just a product of a fatigued, exasperated mind that has had enough?

"L'Enfer" is unlike most modern Chabrol thrillers, and it is easy to see why, given its source material. And yet, Chabrol manages to deliver the goods like the pro he is. The thin line between fantasy and reality is mostly kept invisible except in some areas where it is made explicit. The obvious sequences of hallucination are expertly filmed, particularly one giving off an aura of some trippy dream of seduction with the temptress Nelly at its center and all the other men around her going all touchy-feely.

As Paul gradually loses his grip on sanity, the atmosphere of the film sees a transformation as well, as it gets much darker from its initial tone. One can see some Kubrickian symmetry and Hitchcockian claustrophobia applied rather deftly in the scenes in the resort especially during those power cuts when Paul's suspicions about Nelly go out the roof. It all comes off convincingly enough right through to its very fitting ending, thanks to the strong performances of the lead pair, although, Cluzet does tend to go over the top in places. 

Henri-Georges Clouzot had first set out to make "L'Enfer" with the bewitching Romy Schneider. That was back in 1964, but the project never took off, due to various reasons. Years after his death, his widow sold the script to Chabrol, who reworked it and filmed his own version. Whether Chabrol did justice to the original script, filmed a version better or lesser, we will never know, for we have only one finished film to judge. Suffice to say, though, that he has crafted a compelling psycho-drama indeed, and added yet another great film to his oeuvre for us cineastes to savour.

Score: 9/10

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