The story is about a man, played by Serge Reggiani, who thinks his wife, played by Romy Schneider, may be cheating on him; what made the film version by Claude Chabrol so interesting is that even though you felt the husband was being paranoid, there was the very real possibility he was right; his wife could have been making whoopee with a rather hunky car mechanic (hey, it is Romy Schneider we’re talking about). It is easiest to discuss this documentary, written by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea and directed by Bromberg, by dividing it into two parts: the sections devoted to the facts of the case, the reasons for the film never being completed, and the sections devoted to an experimental approach Clouzot was using to express the lead character’s paranoia.
The story about the film itself is the most satisfying section of the movie. It details how Clouzot, normally a person who plans well ahead and is very methodical in the way he usually made movies, was overwhelmed by Hollywood money and began acting like Michael Camino, recklessly spending; living the high life; and never being able to decide when something was done. At one point he had Reggiani run across a bridge over and over again until he got it just right (what is this, a Stanley Kubrick production). Clouzot had three sets of technicians that were supposed to be setting up different scenes and shots at different locations so that Clouzot would be able to go from place to place and shoot the scenes in one day, except that Clouzot could never seem to finish the first shot and move on. He had only a limited time to shoot the film as it was because the lake he was using was going to be drained. And then Reggiania, no longer able to take Clouzot’s treatment of him (including the continual sprint across the bridge), quit. Reggiani was replaced by Jacques Gamblin, who quickly quit himself. Hey, when a ship starts to sink, it starts to sink.
A second section of the documentary is devoted to scenes from the movie itself. Most of the film was to be shot in black and white, representing the realistic parts of the plot, and there are some very beautiful scenes here with the husband being haloed by a bridge and a scene where he makes that run across the bridge and along a ridge watching his wife water ski with the mechanic. But there’s also a series of experimental shots and scenes in color that are supposed to reveal the jealous husband’s inner mental journey. These are scenes that would be a wet dream to many avant garde filmmakers. The problem here is that the filmmakers show these scenes over and over and over and over and over again. One gets the gist of what Clouzot was trying to do fairly quickly, but one still has to see the same old scene again and again and again and again. It weighs the film down and makes it difficult to stay involved. It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to convince the audience that they were missing out on something artistically brilliant with these scenes, but they do it with a feeling of such desperation, it actually has the opposite effect. Instead of thinking I missed out on a masterpiece, I just wanted to miss out on the rest of the documentary.
An Unfinished Film is also about a movie that is, well, unfinished (there’s nothing like truth in advertising). During the occupation of Warsaw and after the creation of the Ghetto, Hitler’s regime decided to film a documentary about life in that infamous location. Though no one knows exactly what that purpose was, it seems that it was supposed to demonstrate that life in the Ghetto wasn’t necessarily that bad and if it was bad for anyone, it was because the Jews themselves refused to make things better. The suggestion was to be that there was an upper class of wealthy Jews who lacked for nothing, but who were content to let those that were less well off suffer. For some reason, again no one knows, the filming was stopped and the movie never completed. What was filmed was kept in a vault along with other records of the same time period.
This is where I’m probably going to get in trouble. Though the subject matter is important and even fascinating in and of itself, and it’s a story that needs to be told, the documentary itself left me a bit puzzled and cold. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to bring away with me. I learned that the film had been made, but I’m not sure I learned much more than that and I’m also not sure that that’s enough. It certainly couldn’t help the filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, who wrote and directed, that so much of the whys and wherefores are not available. Only one cameraman was located and though he did a lot of filming, he knew next to nothing about why he was being asked to do it. In addition, in 1966, an additional can of film was discovered that showed outtakes of scenes from the earlier reels. It showed that the scenes already filmed were not cinema verite, as the saying goes, but were carefully staged, edited and crafted with a purpose in mind (at one point, Jews who weren’t razor thin from starvation were herded into a fancy restaurant created for the sole purpose of filming a luxurious repast, and given what was probably the last good meal most of them ever got, in order to prove the economic disparity of those living in the Ghetto). As fascinating as that is, I still wasn’t sure why I was being told this.
I went to see it with my friend Beriau and he gave me some insightful information. He told me he had seen scenes from the unfinished film in other documentaries about the Warsaw Ghetto, and that creators of these other films had always taken these scenes at face value, that it was accepted as fact that there was a wide disparity of wealth in the Ghetto. With the discovery of the new reels, it was revealed that these scenes were not an accurate depiction of Ghetto life, but were a lie. And that all those in the past who had claimed that there were Jews who were well off had gotten it wrong. And this was supported by survivors of the Ghetto who watched the film and told the filmmakers the truth of what had really taken place. When he told me this, all I could think was, if only this had been what the film had been about, how the earlier cans of films had been misused to prove something untrue. Instead we have a bare as bones recitation of facts that for me needed a bit more history and context than I was given.