Movie Review : L'Enfer
Hell or Torment
What is the meaning of jealous madness? Can a man be driven insane by his jealousy? The film, L'Enfer examines this sickness in detail. In so doing, it also peers into the mind of a man descending into psychotic paranoia.
Directed by Claude Chabrol in 1993, this thriller is a psychological study of a man in conflict with himself. It stars Emmanuelle Béart as Neilly, a beautiful newlywed wife of Paul, Francois Cluzet, the upwardly mobile owner of a hotel resort. Both of these actors are excellently casted. Béart is notably good as the misunderstood spouse. Cluzet’s raging temper made me remember painful episodes from my own relationships, where jealousy was at the bottom of it all. Thankfully, I’ve grown older and wiser these days.
The story opens with a happy couple, Paul and Neilly, newlyweds that have purchased a vacation resort in the French countryside. Paul is ambitious and his wife is stunningly beautiful and devoted to him. To add to the idyll, they are graced with a son in the opening sequences. The son plays a minor role, as a counterpoint to Paul's gathering sexual paranoia. He represents innocence pitted against naked cynicism. All seems well for the lovers. They have a lucrative business, friends in their employ, and a promising future. From here, the film traces Paul's descent into a jealous, psychotic suspicion that his wife is unfaithful to him. However, Chabrol does not explain the reasons behind this aberrant behavior. It is this lack of explanation that actually increases the introspective power of the film.
Chabrol develops the plot with a precise rationality . At first, Paul doubts his wife is having an affair. Soon his doubt turns to suspicion. And his suspicions seem to be very well founded, a viewer can actually imagine that he might, in fact be right about his wife's machinations. She lies about some minor matters, as his inquiries become more insistent, and probing. Anybody that has ever been in an adulterous affair will recognize the elements of deception: lying about when and where you were; making excuses to get away from your spouse and unknown people visiting you. But what is worst, the suspect party expresses irritation when questioning becomes more incisive. This is what Neilly does. She reacts to Paul’s continual prying into her personal life with increasing resistance. But, isn't this indicative that she’s having an affair? Initially, a viewer can’t ascertain, who is right. This shadowy implication gives L'Enfer a tense edge in its early stages. This narrow line between pretension and reality is played out with well-scripted dialogue. It is reminiscent of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces: Vertigo. Paul becomes voyeuristic as he tries to discover his wife’s whereabouts and intentions, much as Jimmy Stewart became obsessed with Raymond Burr’s actions in Vertigo. Paul, however also has serious mental problems. We definitely begin to see; Paul is a sick man and not just a jealous husband. This movie is not just about a jealous husband and recalcitrant wife, but is a look at a schizophrenic man and his struggle with insanity. To see this notice this: it would have worked just as easily if Neilly had been his sister, of whom he was insanely protective, and sought to prevent her from of having sex with men that he disapproved. In this case the theme would have been repressed incest (a theme many French directors have expressed), but the study would still have been about schizophrenia.
I could identify with Paul's mistrust at the outset quite easily. When Paul grilled Neilly about her visit to her mother's place, I could actually see his side so to speak. The personal identification was quickly dispensed, when Paul's suspicions turned swiftly into delusions. The use of voice-overs with alteration of voice timber to make it sound fanatic, gave the effect of a schizoid personality emerging in the character.
As the film draws in the viewer, you can’t stop feeling how out of touch Paul is with reality. His descent into madness becomes clearer as the final sequences are played out. It gives the film a sense of a grotesque sculpture being revealed layer by layer. With each layer ripped away, Paul becomes more and more psychotic and dangerous. Its tragic conclusion is telegraphed for sure, but the shock of his action is not diminished. You want to tell Paul, to wake up, to stop suspecting his wife, to stop suspecting those close friends and anyone else he encounters. You sit there helpless to correct a man in the throes of mental collapse and wonder if you could ever behave like this.
Yes, there are subtle undercurrents in this film. Sexual inadequacy, aggression, and mistrust are few understated themes, and the possessive nature of sexuality between men and women, is another. L’Enfer hints at this tension. Chabrol also focuses on the innocence of a woman, abused by a domineering man through these characters, and that unsettled me. After all, there are many female ‘Pauls’ in domesticity, and just as dangerous, if not more. They don't batter and maim their partners, but in many cases, can with stealth and deceit, kill just as easily.
This tragedy is modern in style but timeless in nature. It is also, food for thought to a married couple, anywhere. Take care young lovers, lest you suffer the depths of L’Enfer.
Review by Ken Wais on 5/10/99
Another spellbinding French film, but with deep mathematical implications is Tzameti 13.