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LíEnfer (Claude Chabrol, 1994)


    Charting the descent into madness with almost obsessive persistence, Claude Chabrolís LíEnfer denies the audience conventional relief from that decline by eliding with precision any sequences that might alleviate tension. As such, itís a fiercely gripping thriller, made more troubling by Chabrolís decision to stop the film at its protagonistís low point and refuse the reconciliatory scene that one would expect. It has the ruthlessness and psychological depth that one would expect of a film that has had its script adapted from an unfilmed work by Gallic suspense director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Set at a hotel in the French countryside, it begins as a husband and wife (Francois Cluzet & Emmanuelle Beart) meet for the first time, then watches the gradual dissolution of their relationship. Though there are other characters, they exist mostly to prompt bouts of his mad jealousy, essentially making the movie a two-character piece. As the title suggests (itís French for Hell), the narrative trajectory is a downward spiral, and in watching the two characters size each other up as their expectations of one another are smashed, Chabrol finds a fair amount of heartbreak. If the movieís jump into the husbandís subjective delusions leaves realism behind, that decision allows Chabrol to work some cruel social commentary into the story. Beartís character claims, in one moment that may or may not be really happening, that she only stays with her husband because she needs his money. Similarly, the guests at the hotel write off many of his wild outbursts as the socially unacceptable, but expected, ravings of a drunkard. Itís the expectation of some degree of dissatisfaction in her life that seems to keep Beartís character in her miserable state, and that theme fits in perfectly with Chabrolís overriding worldview.


    LíEnferís style becomes more dominant as the film progresses, but it never feels as if it is getting in the way of the study of the characters. At the beginning, thereís an episodic approach, with small moments of their lives being shown as their relationship develops separated by jarring cuts to black. As the film continues and the husbandís madness grows more dominant, the segments get longer and the time lapsed between each one grows shorter, giving the impression that his illness is degenerative and gaining momentum. When the film finally settles down into a single time period, and heís gone completely mad, Chabrol doesnít still fade to black, but shoots many scenes in very dim, nearly black light to give the viewer the same effect that the darkness had. The use of expressionistic lighting and the design of the hotel is unmissiable, but itís integrated subtly enough that it doesnít make the film lose all of its grounding in reality. Thereís very little thatís extraneous in the filmís construction, and because of the ever-increasing momentum the tension escalates smoothly. Surely key to the experience are the performances. Cluzet seems to be alternately scared, charming, and insane. Beart has to be the vamp that her husband sees her as but still maintain the aura of an innocent victim to create audience empathy, and she manages to do this splendidly. Even if it is too much a stripped down genre piece to reach dizzying heights, LíEnfer does an admirable job of exploring the depths of one disturbed manís psyche.


 * * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman