L’Enfer (1994)

3 08 2017

My appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock tends to fall short of the fanatical devotion that his rich filmography rightfully deserves. His work is endlessly fascinating, but as someone who spent probably too much time in the world of academia and the cinephilia and the places they overlap, his omnipresence is overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why I never attempted to familiarize myself with Claude Chabrol, who is commonly described as French cinema’s Hitchcock. To me, though, my prior disinterest comes from an unfair association I made between his films (especially his later ones) and the idea of a “French mainstream erotic thriller.” The type of movie that American critics love because it balances the right amount of lasciviousness with competent filmmaking. In watching L’Enfer, I can see why I made such an association but I now see no reason to impulsively reject such a thing.

L’Enfer is a conspiracy film, albeit a sexual conspiracy. In the film’s opening moments, Chabrol gives us Paul and Nelly. We see quick flashes of their initial meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and then the birth of their first child. These happy moments, we will later find out, are fleeting. They are brilliantly presented by Chabrol as slippery to begin with. Each “big” event is given barely a minute, if even that, and then abruptly fades out. With the couple’s happiness established, we immediately move on. What follows is Paul’s gradual descent into madness.

One might feel the need to correct my description of L’Enfer as a conspiracy film. A more accurate reading would be that it is a film about paranoia. While the two often go together, they are not interchangeable. Conspiracy suggests a plan formed by powerful individuals, which often masks an uncomfortable truth about the status quo. If we are to map this onto Paul and Nelly’s relationship, it feels a bit forced. Nelly’s possible infidelity is not a secret plan devised by a group to mask the truth from poor Paul. However, the film achieves status as a conspiracy when the infidelity is framed as something that is done to Paul. This sounds uncomfortably anti-woman, a minimizing of Nelly’s potential to be a fully formed character. In L’Enfer, she isn’t one.

This sounds like a criticism of the film, but I’m not quite sure. In typical conspiracy films, the paranoid protagonist pursues their suspicions, which often provide enough tension between the real and the fake. They dive deeper down the rabbit hole, yet remain aware that they are “going too deep.” In these films, the paranoid individual’s perspective is privileged, and a good conspiracy film can do a lot with this playing of fact and fiction. Chabrol does this brilliantly halfway through the film when a friend of Paul and Nelly projects his summer home video. At this point, Paul’s reality has already been compromised. He’s suspicious that Nelly is being unfaithful, but this is the first instance in which his perceptions have been filtered through technology. A “film” should be hard evidence, and even in the contemporary world, it is often viewed as something objective. Grainy home video of Nelly merely talking to other men is quickly thrown up against glossy, highly stylized compositions of her being explicitly erotic towards them. Paul finally breaks, but it is more about him than it is about Nelly. We cannot pick out the “evidence” from the images his insecurities project. Furthermore, there is no need to.

From this point on, Paul is an unquestionably abusive spouse. His tactics before could be described as mentally violent, but following the home video, he becomes physically violent. He interrogates Nelly’s every breath. Flustered by her husband’s brutality, she seldom produces answers that are satisfying to him. Chabrol deprives us of any moral balance. Nelly does not get revenge, nor does she even escape from Paul’s suffocating grasp. Instead the film ends in ambiguity, explicitly so, as the title card reads “Without End.” It’s difficult to describe L’Enfer as feminist. It chronicles an abusive relationship and does so through the eyes of the abuser. He remains unscathed, save for a self-inflicted cut on his head. Yet, I find something deeply critical in Chabrol’s position. There are countless “erotic thrillers” where the mean, jealous man gets his comeuppance.  These victories are short-lived, not to mention merely fiction. The pain of the individual woman turns out to be temporary, but the moral re-balance, sets the stage for the continued pain of women in general. The former is a short-lived satisfaction, but a satisfaction all the same. There’s something deeply upsetting about the place where Chabrol leaves us. We should be upset.



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