April 04, 2007


Jealousy is an unsettling and terrible emotion to suffer- when combined with mental illness, it can catapult a human being into becoming a monster. Like in Othello, the jealous man can make his world his own creation- a creation where every thing that he perceives becomes yet further evidence that his obsession is right. In creating our worlds, we string together facts into fantasies, single words or experiences into sentences or stories. The distinction between someone who is well and someone who is ill is that the ill person strings together stories which begin to veer off from the world, where the story and not the data he perceives becomes what he observes, where the story branches away and guilt and innocence are adjudicated with a mind that is fitting facts to a theorem, not a theorem to facts.

That is the state in which Paul, the hero of Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer finds himself in. Paul is an overworked businessman, he owns and runs a successful hotel. He has a beautiful wife, Nelly, played by Emmanuelle Beart, and a son. To understand Paul's emergant mental difficulties, we must begin with Nelly. She loves Paul dearly and throughout the film this is evident- Paul's suspisions are not groundless but they are incorrect. Nelly is flirtatious unconsciously- she has a sense of fun, a sense of humour and mischief that are not meant flirtatiously but can appear so. She loves and enjoys life- she is the kind of person who is like a spotlight shone on other people, she can illumine moments for them that had no charm. Paul perceives this charisma- this basic joie de vivre as flirtation- he starts by seeing her laughing at a film with a young muscular man in a dark room and then slowly progresses to seeing flirtation as tantamount to sex, and sex with one man as tantamount to sex with many. He extends his picture of her until it becomes completely divorced from reality- and yet for the viewer it is possible to see how he has sexualised his wife's charisma into being aldultery at first, for us at a distance we quickly realise that Nelly just has charisma, for him close to the situation there begins a path that leads to his undoing.

Chabrol's filming technique might be described as staccato- he gives us instances, glimpses into their lives which illuminate that which we do not see. What he attempts to create and does very well is a dual impression in the mind of the viewer- we know that Nelly has not committed adultery but we also understand Paul's sense that she has. There is a particularly wonderful segment where we see Paul running alongside the river, where Nelly is being boated around by a male friend- and what we see is Paul's imagination of Nelly's sensual glee at this male friend's company. What is fascinating as well is that Chabrol shows us that there is nothing that Nelly can do to convince Paul that he is wrong- nothing she can offer will show him that he is making a mistake. She tries to convince him by giving up male company, by giving up her trips into town but nothing she does will ever convince him- and the slightest petulant or angry moment becomes part of a code through which he interprets the world.

Roger Ebert in his review of L'Enfer argues that the most interesting character in the film is Nelly- Ebert beleives that she provokes Paul and that by staying with him in a way she wills her own destruction. I disagree with Ebert on the first point- but the second is more interesting. For Nelly does stay even though it is evident that Paul is going mad and is becoming dangerous. Again I think Ebert is wrong- its quite clear that at the end of the film Nelly stays with Paul in order for him to receive psychological treatment. She does at one point petulantly tell him that she doesn't love him but his money- but again I read that through the lens of a character under amazing stress- we have all said things like that to people and meant them in the moment but not in the longterm, I think that is what is going on there. Nelly stays with Paul because she wants to help him, she wants to convince him, she loves him. She remains his advocate though others are pealing away from him- her behaviour during his period of madness is the conclusive evidence that she isn't what he thinks she is. She is willing to suffer for him and does- and its here I think that we see that she is a normal charismatic young woman and not the harlot that Paul imagines- though of course he doesn't see it like that. Her endurance is fascinating because to some extent it marks an invisible boundary between love and masochism- when should she leave? When is too much too much?

The film raises all sorts of questions and leaves most of them unanswered. It is one of the best meditations on film about jealousy and the way that it consumes and also about the way that marriage and relationships work. Chabrol plays with the way that narrative constructs a character and the way that human beings construct character out of the instances of a person that they perceive. It also fascinatingly attacks the question of how far to go for someone one loves, and how far one is bound to save onesself. Many of these questions are left unanswered- but this is a film for pondering through and not neccessarily finding answers through.


"Clarence" said...

I've added this to my Netflix. Sounds interesting.

Gracchi said...

Yes do- and if you blog about it send me an email I'd love to read other reviews- it is a surprisingly underreviewed film on the internet.