Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go

You don’t have to get too far into Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant 2005 novel Never Let Me Go to realize it’s hopelessly unfilmable. Strictly speaking the book is science fiction, but that’s not the problem: there are no strange creatures or unknown worlds, and in any case digital technology has already made such fantastic images commonplace in the movies. What blocks Ishiguro’s story from the screen is simple language, precisely chosen and delicately shaped, which creates a sensibility the movie’s talented actors can only approximate. In this subliterate age, when text messagers demote words to single letters, technical writers render instructions in pictographs, and popular novels read like glorified screenplays, you have to admire a story that defies visualization, that stakes its life on the written word. Never Let Me Go qualifies as a great novel partly because it could never be great as anything else.

To explain this in greater detail, I have no choice but to spoil certain of the novel’s revelations, but I take some solace in the fact that the new screen adaptation spoils the book worse than I ever could. Never Let Me Go is set in the late 1990s and narrated by Kathy H., a 31-year-old caregiver who drives around England tending to various organ donors. Almost immediately, however, her first-person account flashes back to the late 70s, when she attended an exclusive rural boarding school called Hailsham. Her closest friends at the time were Tommy, a sweet-natured boy given to occasional temper tantrums, and Ruth, a sharp-tongued girl skilled at finding the upper hand in any social situation. As the three children mature into their teens, Ruth and Tommy pair off as sweethearts, leaving Kathy to herself, and eventually all three graduate from Hailsham to a little community known as the Cottages, where they while away the time and prepare to take their place in the adult world.

An intelligent, sensitive young woman, Kathy is attuned to the slightest social and emotional nuances, and her discursive, frequently backtracking narration would give any screenwriter a run for his money. But what gives the novel its force, and makes it impossible to dramatize properly, is the space between her polite, well-bred voice and the horrible reality that lies beneath it. More than a third of the novel has passed before the truth is spelled out, though by that time it’s already crept up on you, with all the talk of “carers” and “donations” and “completing.” The students at Hailsham may seem to be children of privilege, but in fact they’re all human clones, engineered for the sole purpose of organ harvesting. Ishiguro’s carefully controlled prose, with its dainty euphemisms, turns a sensational premise into a philosophical inquiry; Kathy’s proper British reserve in the face of this monstrous arrangement isn’t all that different from the way we all protect ourselves from the modern world’s dehumanization.

Interviewed for the website Cinematical, Alex Garland called his screenplay for Never Let Me Go “probably the easiest script I’ve ever worked [on],” so it’s no surprise to find that he punted on the single biggest challenge of adapting the novel. The movie opens with a title explaining that a medical breakthrough in the early 1950s allowed human life expectancy to surpass 100 years by 1967, which instantly compromises the quotidian tone Ishiguro worked so hard to create. Next a framing scene shows the adult Kathy (Carey Mulligan) exchanging an uneasy smile with Tommy (Andrew Garfield) as he’s prepped for surgery, and in a flashback to a school assembly the brittle headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) announces that cigarette butts have been found on the grounds and reminds the students of their special responsibility to maintain their health. After that the book’s strategy of incremental revelation is ruined. It doesn’t take much to figure out what the students and faculty mean by “donations.”

Unfortunately that’s showbiz: screenwriters are routinely taught that a viewer needs to understand what’s at stake within the first ten minutes or he’ll bail out. Garland’s previous screenplays, both for director Danny Boyle, dealt with a zombie epidemic (28 Days Later . . .) and a space mission to keep the sun alive (Sunshine), both matters of self-evident importance. But telling a story about the unspoken social gamesmanship between a couple of 12-year-old girls is much harder, which may explain why Kathy’s constantly shifting relationship with the cagey, defensive Ruth (played as an adult by Keira Knightley) flattens out so badly onscreen. On the page their conflict is held aloft by Kathy’s minutely observed prose and, ultimately, the buried fear, rage, and despair that motivates all three kids in their interactions with one another. But the hardest part of any novel to adapt is the part between the lines.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

With Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, documentary makers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea take on another story that defied realization: the ambitious and ultimately abandoned French psychodrama L’Enfer (“The Inferno”). The documentary originated in 2005 when Bromberg, a noted film historian and collector, found himself stranded in an elevator in a Paris apartment building with an elderly woman who turned out to be Ines Clouzot, the widow of filmmaker Henri-Georges. As she and Bromberg waited to be rescued, they talked about her husband, whose bitter suspense films The Raven (1943), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953), and Diabolique (1955) won him a reputation as the French rival to Alfred Hitchcock. Ines also told Bromberg the story of L’Enfer, a tale of jealousy and madness that Clouzot hoped would be his masterpiece; launched in the summer of 1964, with the supremely sexy Romy Schneider as its star and an unlimited budget from Columbia Pictures in the U.S., it quickly turned into a runaway train and went off the rails for good after Clouzot suffered a heart attack on location.

Before that happened, though, Clouzot amassed about 13 hours of color and black-and-white footage: costume and makeup tests featuring Schneider and her costars; exterior scenes shot at the lakeside Hotel Garabit in the south-central Cantal region; and, most impressive of all, a series of wild camera experiments intended to represent onscreen the male protagonist’s disordered mind. From this silent footage Bromberg and Medrea attempt to reconstruct L’Enfer, adding evocative music and sound effects to the archival material and staging selected scenes from the script with actors on a bare soundstage. Interspersed throughout are interviews with surviving cast and crew members who recall the troubled production and Clouzot’s feverish obsession with the movie inside his head.

Of course, that movie can never be seen, not here nor in L’Enfer, the 1994 drama that Claude Chabrol adapted from Clouzot’s script. But Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno tells a story that’s fascinating in its own right: like the jealous husband in his unrealized movie, Clouzot fell captive to his own imagination.

To hear Clouzot’s collaborators tell it, this crackup was particularly surprising given his track record. After 30 years in the business, he was known not as some gaga visionary but as a highly efficient, formidably well-prepared filmmaker. The documentary includes some of his storyboards for L’Enfer, which were so detailed they specified the camera distances, lens requirements, and film exposures. But Clouzot had been radically affected by the fantasy sequences in Federico Fellini’s (1963), and he’d been nursing a passion for modern art since collaborating with Pablo Picasso on the documentary The Mystery of Picasso (1956). Inspired by an exhibit on kinetic and op art at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Clouzot engaged Jean-Pierre Yvaral to re-create some of his pieces on film and then to create entirely new work that would portray the husband’s fits of jealousy. The soundtrack would have to follow suit, so Clouzot began brainstorming with Jean-Louis Ducarne, a sound engineer in the research division of French public radio, to create fugal arrangements of overlapping voices.

Bromberg and Medrea present numerous montages of this experimental work—most of it in rich, saturated color—and it suggests that, had L’Enfer been completed, it would have been, at the very least, a masterpiece of psychedelia. Geometric patterns pulse with energy, and multiple exposures create clouds of human eyes. Fun-house mirrors show the characters’ heads twisting, ballooning, and merging; trick shots with plate glass positioned before the lens show the characters deformed by cascading water, or they’re lit with rotating red and blue spots that turn their faces into multicolored pinwheels. Reverse and fast-motion photography yields simple but wildly hallucinatory effects: in one shot Schneider laughs as sparkling fluid is sucked from a glass back into its bottle, and in another she lies nude on a train track as a train appears to roar up to her at full speed and then halt.

But like many filmmakers with unlimited freedom, Clouzot spun out of control: typical of the production’s excess was his imagined sequence of the lake’s water turning blood red, which involved negative photography and required all the actors to wear gray-green makeup that would register as flesh tone onscreen. Clouzot had assembled three entirely different camera crews, but their staggered schedules collapsed as Clouzot refused to leave one setup to begin another. The shoot fell behind and the cast and crew grew hopelessly confused, struggling to understand what Clouzot wanted from them. His leading man, Serge Reggiani, quit in frustration, and a replacement, Jean-Louis Trintignant, lasted only a week. At times the quick and decisive filmmaker of the 1950s now stood silent behind the camera for minutes at a time, unable to articulate what was missing from a scene. When Clouzot finally collapsed on the set, he may only have been acknowledging what countless other directors have realized in perhaps less dramatic epiphanies: the distance between the story and the screen can stretch into infinity.