“She’s flown the coop.”
Paul (Francois Cluzet) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) Prieur own and manage a lakeside hotel–a romantic place with an idyllic location that appeals to lovers. Paul is under a great deal of strain–the hotel is a tremendous financial burden, and every time Paul turns his back for a moment, Nelly seems to be running off to town on some shopping spree or another. Paul begins to suspect that his beautiful wife may be having an affair with a local car mechanic, and Paul’s jealousy pushes him over the edge into madness.
Emmanuelle Beart is one of the most beautiful actresses in French cinema. Unfortunately this often translates to roles in which Beart is a face only. In Claude Chabrol’s “L’Enfer” however, Beart is allowed to act, and she does so beautifully. When the film begins, she is the somewhat indulged wife–she dresses provocatively with plunging necklines and mini-skirts. When Paul objects to her absences or suspicious stories, she reacts playfully, making faces before she flounces off. The role of Nelly allows Beart to show her acting range, and during the course of the film she deteriorates from a giddy girl to a pathetically withdrawn terrified woman. Nelly is one of Beart’s best roles. Francois Cluzet is excellent as the suffocating husband who feels impotent in the face of his wife’s desirability.
Many professional critics call Chabrol, the ‘French Hitchcock’ and it’s easy to see why in L’Enfer. The setting of the film is an excellent choice. After all, Nelly and Paul’s marriage is semi-public property. Neither of them can sneeze without one of the guests observing it. Paul and Nelly are stuck in this haven of relaxation, but underneath the surface, festering tension is ready to explode. L’Enfer seems like a simple story of an abusive husband who becomes consumed with jealousy. Jealousy indeed is a monster, for the more Paul feeds it, the hungrier it becomes. Nelly appears innocent–but is she? Chabrol toys with various possibilities here, and the surreal ending leaves even more questions. Fans of French cinema should enjoy the film, and will find much to speculate about long after the final scene.