Les Diaboliques (1955) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
What’s it about?
Paul Meurisse plays Michel Delasalle, the headmaster at a school for boys. His Venezuelan immigrant wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) also teach at the same school. An unusual aspect of this situation, however, is that rather than being in animosity, wife and mistress seem to be united in friendship by Michel’s tendencies towards physical and emotional cruelty. So much so, in fact, that they plot to have him murdered.
They put an elaborate plan in motion whereby Michel is drugged and then it is made to look like he drowned in the school’s swimming pool. However, all goes terribly awry when the pool needs to be drained, after which they discover that the body has gone.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
Les Diaboliques was director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s immediate successor to The Wages of Fear (1953) and stands alongside it as one of his most well-regarded films. As with the other film, it was a major critical and commercial success on its release which cemented his reputation as one of the best directors to emerge from French cinema.
Famously, he was in competition with Alfred Hitchcock for the rights to the original novel on which it is based and (if rumours are to be believed) managed to beat his portly Anglophone rival to the post by just a few hours in getting authors Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac to sign on the dotted line. Despite Hitchcock’s undoubted disappointment at losing the opportunity to make it he became a big fan of the finished film. HIs career also ultimately benefitted as the two authors wrote another novel called D'Entre les Morts which they had earmarked specifically for him to make (it became Vertigo, which is now regarded as being one of his best). It has also been cited as an inspiration behind another of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Psycho (1960).
It was remade on a number of occasions for both TV and the big screen, the most recent being Diabolique (1996) starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. However, Clouzot’s version is widely considered to be the best.
How does it hold up?
As my short “What’s it about?” section suggests, Les Diaboliques is one of those films where one can’t give too much away, lest the twists and intricacies in the script are spoilt. It’s a remarkably well-constructed thriller.
It is also very effective at building suspense in a believable manner. Clouzot graduated from the German Expressionist movement, something which clearly shows in the film’s use of light and shadow. This influence is particularly clear in one moment in the lead-up to carrying out the murder where Christina is seen in the foreground in silhouette, reflecting how her own character is taking a plunge into moral darkness. However such moments - at least until the heart-in-mouth, horror-tinged finale - are fleeting. For the rest of the time, the director goes for a restrained, realistic approach, passing his camera without fuss over details that seem initially irrelevant but later gain significance (for instance the opening drive to the school, where we briefly see the car pass the dirty outdoor pool). The way in which it all falls into place is part of the pleasure.
The approach to characterisation also adds credibility and suspense. Christina’s view of the situation, torn between her Catholic guilt and her genuine resentment of her husband’s brutalities, adds immeasurably to the weight of the situation as she always appears to be on the edge of cracking. Nicole is the more coldly calculating yang to Christina’s yin, and the pair’s symbiotic relationship of opposites (with hints of a sapphic nature) plows the plot forward. Both are very well played by (Henri-George’s real-life wife) Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret respectively. Paul Meurisse makes for an easy-to-hate husband and headmaster, arrogantly cold as he remorselessly bullies Christina to eat spoilt fish and slaps her around. At the same time, he does manage to invoke a modicum of sympathy at a crucial moment, again tapping into Christina’s innate sense of guilt. The best performance, however, is from Charles Vanel, who brings a shrewd sensibility to the role of the detective named Alfred Fichet who starts poking around in search of this missing husband.
The icing on the cake is the film’s black humour during certain suspense sequences such as a scene where an inebriated soldier tries to hitch a ride in the back of the van where Michel’s body is hidden. There is also a running joke involving a schoolboy who is prone to playing sick pranks.
It’s a darkly potent piece of work from one of the finest directors in the rich history of French cinema.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Script: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Rene Masson, Frederic Grendel, from a novel by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel