What happens when you have everything so set in place? What happens when a man, such as Paul (Francois Cluzet) gets married to the ridiculously attractive and young and nubile woman Nelly (the ridiculously attracting and 20-something and nubile Emmanuelle Beart), and has his own relatively successful hotel that he runs and a nice bouncing baby boy? Well, what kind of conflict could arise from such bougeois peace and splendor? Why, why not make the man little by little go completely insane? And not just the garden-variety jealousy kind. The jealousy meter in L'Enfer would make De Niro's Jake La Motta have second thoughts about his line of thinking.
Taken from an unfinished screenplay by Henri-Georges Cluzot (though that script made somewhat into a movie and released limited this year), this is Chabrol having fun. And it's hard to see that at first as it looks to be in line with one of Chabrol's other infidelity dramas - and the man knows how to make them with arguably his best film being The Unfaithful Woman (later itself remade as Unfaithful in 2002). But where one can have some sympathies with the characters in Unfaithful Woman to spread around. L'Enfer is trickier. The instinct would be to be on Paul's side, as he our protagonist. He's not an unattractive man but he has the kind of self-made low self-esteem that makes me wonder what he was like back in high school. Early on Chabrol gives us an inkling to his madness as he stands by a pier and there's another, sinister voice heard (and one knows it's different as a chance to italics in the subtitles, like a devil on his shoulder).
But this isn't like with a Raging Bull story where the unlikely search for some small redemption is a concern of the filmmaker. I don't think Chabrol wants us to really like this guy Paul at all. He starts off seeming like a character out of a Woody Allen movie, spying on his woman, insecure, asking a lot of questions though not articulate always about his suspicions. For the first half hour as he suspects Nelly and follows her, and while he doesn't appear totally reasonable we can still follow along with him. This, and the confrontation and (spoiler) make-up sex seems to suggest a closed story... not so fast, Batman! An amateur filmmaker who screens some of his shots taken of various people around the hotel, one of them Nelly in a skimpy bathing suit, sets Paul's visions of his wife having passionate sex with the (somewhat) hunky mechanic sends him again into a tizzy. This time there is a slap, right in the middle of a screening, and it sends the film into its darkest areas...
That is, until the last fifteen minutes. It's around then, after so much time of Paul being as paranoid as Nixon on cocaine that he goes a step too far with Nelly, pummeling her to the ground. I may have not described how Paul is during all of this - as played with an uncanny creepiness that doesn't show itself too soon by Cluzet - because he still tries to appear normal. That is, when he's not having jealous visions and his jealous voice isn't telling him to go berserk. There's a scene later in the film where hope seems to be on the horizon, that a psychiatric doctor might be able to "help" him by putting him away - that is, until it looks like he will put Nelly away instead (this scene is also tricky to peg as it could be taken, via Paul's disturbed point of view, that the doctor will put him away instead and is using code). When it comes to that last night in their house in the hotel, it gets weird. Not quite Shining weird, but close enough.
Some logical questions might come up from time to time, biggest of all why Nelly doesn't just get a divorce and go away from him with their son. Maybe Chabrol is too clever, or doesn't think his female figure of adoration, is clever enough, and she even later on states she only is staying around as she doesn't have the money to leave. This nagged me only in a few staggering moments, when one realizes this is the 1990's and not some by-gone era before divorce. But, again, like a movie such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the filmmaker's concern isn't logic so much as depicting a possessed mind, that is to say a mind possessed of its own worst devils and unable to let go. The Hell of the title is what Paul makes for his family, his fellow hotel patrons, and it's a wonder how he goes through the first few reels without blowing his brains out. Why he goes so far one can speculate, and it is in Chabrol's ever-so awesome storytelling hands, makes it so compelling.
This doesn't make him a villain by the end. Despite everything, despite how close Paul goes over the edge (or goes over and comes back up only to go over again like a bungee jump), he's not completely detestable. It's easy to hate him for how straightforward Nelly is - not for a moment does Chabrol give a suggestion of her guilt until Paul goes so far as to make what she might do in retaliation sort of acceptable. Paul becomes a warped but pathetic kind of madman that would get brushed off by Norman Bates. Perhaps it's a little simpler, via the over-used Jean-Paul Sartre quote, put into context : Hell is other people. But hey, isn't that fun? And why not end it with this title card: Without End. Cheers!