Paul has just bought a charming waterfront hotel in the heart of France. In debt for the next ten years, he sets to work with his beautiful new wife Nelly. "La vie est belle" for the young couple who soon have a child and a thriving business. This lovely provincial, family-run hotel quickly attracts many locals, tourists and young lovers. Paul however, is working like a dog, and becomes increasingly irritated and high strung. He starts taking sleeping pills and is aware of a voice in his head expressing doubts. Still, all is well and life goes on. Then Paul becomes suspicious of his wife, catching her in ambiguous situations with the hotel guests...
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At the center of Claude Chabrol's new psychological thriller is a man who brings the phrase "insanely jealous" to life. Paul (Francois Cluzet) owns a hotel by a serene lake. He marries the beautiful Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart), they have a son, and soon Paul begins hearing voices in his head that tell him Nelly is unfaithful. "L'Enfer" ("Hell") works best in its early stages, when it is clear that Paul is losing his mind but unclear just what Nelly might be up to. She does, after all, have a blase sex appeal and a hotelful of men to choose from. Paul catches her in the dark, watching slides with a muscular guest. And she has lied about how much she paid for a cute new handbag, so what else has she lied about? Attached to Paul's point of view, we never catch Nelly in a compromising situation, but that doesn't mean she's innocent.
The film's pedigree encourages these suspicions. Mr. Chabrol, the New Wave veteran and the director of the recent "Madame Bovary," also has a taste for stylish thrillers. And he has adapted the script from one written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who directed "Diabolique," the classic story in which a man's wife and mistress team up to murder him. Clouzot, in fact, started to film "L'Enfer" in 1964, but abandoned it when the lead actor and then he himself became ill.
But for all the murder and suspense swirling, before long "L'Enfer" settles into a psychological study of Paul's mental hell of jealousy. There the story begins to lose power. Paul is clearly tormented. At one point all the hotel guests watch home movies, and we see what Paul sees: his wife on the shore of the lake in a torrid embrace with her lover, a humiliation projected before all the guests. In a minute he snaps back to reality and realizes the guests are watching film of his small son on the beach. Mr. Chabrol handles those scenes perfectly, but there are too few of them. More often we see Paul making crazy accusations without our entering his imagination and the hellish circle of his mind.
Mr. Cluzet makes the helpless Paul sympathetic, and doesn't overplay the role. Ms. Beart, best known as "Manon of the Spring," gives Nelly just the right touch of innocence and sexuality. Yet Mr. Chabrol's updated script is full of problems. Why does it take so long for anyone to suggest that the obviously troubled Paul get to a doctor?
© Caryn James, "The New York Times", Oct. 19, 1994