“You probably wished me dead at times.”
“I didn't. But he did.”
Two women. One desperate plan. And a big psychological can of worms.
Having made a name for himself in the years before the Second World War, Henri-George Clouzot then found himself on the wrong side of vigorous public and critical opinion when he brewed-up productions, especially the remarkable thriller Le corbeau (1943), that rankled both his Nazi overseers and the his native (and, at the time, captive) French brethren. It would take some time before he could clear his name and reputation and regain the stature he had previously won with such audacious and inspiring films as Caprice de Princesse and Tout pour l'amour (both 1933) and the police-procedural L'assassin habite au 21 from 1942. But what the film-going fraternity, even Post-War, didn’t quite realise was that Clouzot was distinctly un-political and was only in the business for the love of making movies. He had no agenda to prescribe to, no clarion-call to raise. He wanted to tell stories that were thrilling, provocative and designed to stick in the mind. He didn’t want to produce disposable and escapist fluff, but nor did he hunger for the machinery of poisoned propaganda. To him the important and absolutely crucial elements were story and character. Only two years before, he had made the superlative “modern adventure” in The Wages of Fear, the hair-trigger tale of devil-may-care truckers riding a load of extremely volatile nitroglycerine over a treacherous South American terrain – see separate BD review of Criterion’s incendiary release. That had proved that his style could travel, as not only was the film was a massive success but also crucially influential to the power, vigour and adrenaline that would become the hallmarks of the action movie.
To have made one instant genre-moulding classic is the sort of thing a filmmaker dreams of, and may even be considered something of a by-chance accident. But Clouzot was neither clumsy nor a fluke … and he wasn’t about to stop there. He went and made another classic in a completely different genre altogether straight afterwards in 1955.
Gaining the rights to the acclaimed novel “She Was No More” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock, who had been keen to adapt it, to the punch with the tale of the victimised wife, Christine Delassalle (played magnificently by Vera Clouzot, the director's own wife) of a harsh headmaster who joins forces with the man's embittered mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret), in a plot to murder him and deposit his body in the swimming pool of the boys’ boarding school were they all work. Events then conspire to have the pool drained and the two women are horrified to discover that their victim is no longer there. Ominous events then occur that lead the killers to suspect that he has returned from the grave to torment them. Old hostilities bubble-up as the pair of conspirators become terrorised by the phantom of the man they believed they had eradicated from their lives … and the intervention of a tenacious detective threatens to derail their meticulously planned scheme. Everything heads for a shocking conclusion that shreds the nerves and hammers supernatural doubts into your subconscious.
Les Diabliques (or simply Diabolique, or Le Freaks as it is also known) was destined to become the cornerstone that would found the diabolical tropes of the psychological thriller. Oh sure, there had been others before Clouzot’s dastardly drama came along that had nudged the grey matter into some depraved and shadowy corners a little bit. Hitchcock’s 1946 Spellbound was a classic jangler that kept you guessing, as was the original The Cat And The Canary. But there was a swooning romantic adventure at the heart of one of those, and a quirky black comedy residing within the paranoid walls of the other. Or, in the case of a multitude of murderous Universal, RKO and Fox chillers, a devious scheme that was laid-out right from the start in a linear fashion that worked because we were in on the scam. Only The Beast With Five Fingers came close to keeping its twisted secret safe until the final reel, or The Hound Of The Baskervillles, which was a more action-packed tale, but still one that led you down the garden path with an indication that something else entirely was behind the mayhem. Clouzot wasn’t about to give up his ghost, as it were, without a fight, and it reveals a singular dedication to be able to keep your audience in the dark and fed on a diet of falsehoods for so long.
But Clouzot constructs his film so that you are following one plot arc almost without question. He will turn the tables on you but you won’t see it coming. Well, of course, you will now that I’ve said that … but the point is that suspense movies since Les Diabolique was released have rammed down our throats the concept of the pivotal “twist” so determinedly that we are instinctively looking for it. We are forever on the lookout for the “frozen breath” of The Sixth Sense, the fleeting glimpse of a murderer's face in the mirror in Deep Red, the penny-drop realisation of The Usual Suspects, the supernatural switch-around of The Others or the head-in-the-box shock of Se7en. Cinematically speaking, we have reached the evolutionary standpoint where we are profoundly untrustworthy of the things that a director chooses to show us because we are now fluent in movie-logic and its apparent illogicality. We are savvy with its trickery and attuned to its plotting mischief. It is now customary to expect the unexpected from a thriller, let alone a murder mystery in which our allegiance is drawn down one particular path whilst our hackles are being raised in another direction entirely.
It is no spoiler to declare that Diabolique throws us a massive curve-ball way down the line. There would be no point talking about the film if we didn’t discuss the importance of its final act face-slap. The film has been hailed as a masterpiece for a great many years and has been remade once officially (with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani in the lead roles) and many times unofficially on TV and the Big Screen … and the crucial thematic pivot that the story hinges upon has been utilised in every genre ever since Clouzot’s shocker made such a cultural impact. Alfred Hitchcock was so enamoured with – and envious of – this new high in dramatic audience manipulation that he raised his game with both Psycho and Vertigo, creating classics of the form that owed massive debts to the French game-changer. In fact, it is claimed that he screened Le Diaboliques for his crew before commencing on Vertigo (which was also based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac), to give them the appropriate sense of coldly insinuating mystery and dark, relentless suspense. Clouzot was essentially manipulating everything that we would see and hear and ensuring that even if clues were dropped by the wayside we would be unable to make anything tangible out of them until a second or a third viewing. In the sort of marketing gimmick that both Hitchcock and the panto-king William Castle would employ, Clouzot's film even sends you away with a stern warning not to divulge the pivotal shock ending to anyone who hasn't seen it.
You’ll find lots of writers gushing over the Parisian beauty Simone Signoret, but to be honest, I find the frail Vera Clouzot much more attractive. As well as being far more emotional than the cold and ruthless Nicole, Christina is simply prettier on the eye. Of course, this is exactly as it should be. Nicole is the femme fatale of the team, arrogant and chic and supremely confident in her own sexuality, whilst Christina is the victim who has been belittled and taunted, and driven to dark deeds, deeds that she struggles to reconcile within her heart and her conscience. Whilst we understand her motivations and completely sympathise with them – her husband is a despicable ogre of a man – we don't necessarily concur with Nicole's desire for vengeance. We know that she could move on. She could still salvage her esteem and her dignity – in fact, there is no evidence to suggest that she has ever lost them in the first place – and simply win by attrition. Thus, Nicole is the primary instigator of the foul deed and, in its execution, emotionless and machine-like. Just like an assassin. Vera Clouzot, herself, suffered from ill health, just like her weak-hearted character, and this adds a certain poignancy to her performance, and an essential humanity that Signoret lacks. Sadly, a heart attack was to claim her at the cruelly young age of 46, and as far as Signoret goes, attitudes and moods on-set between herself and the Clouzots were not good. When the film was completed they were barely on speaking terms. However, if anything, this gulf that developed between them only adds to the layers of suspicion and distrust that come to stifle proceedings. It is customary for writers to mention the vague hint of lesbianism that may exude from the two women. But, to be frank, this is a misnomer. I just can't see it, myself. They are complicit in a deadly affair, yes … and their bond is necessarily tight and protective, but I don't think any of the framings of the two or glances that connect them were designed to suggest, even subliminally, that their relationship is anything other than bound by necessity.
And, as the fittingly “heartless” husband, Michel, Paul Meurisse is excellently hideous. A callous, mocking tyrant, he thinks nothing of forcing his wife to consume bad fish in front of the school, and then slapping her about afterwards for daring to have questioned his dubious taste in produce. The verbal and physical abuse that he uses on her could also veil some sexual deviancy that Clouzot certainly hints at, making the man a complete monster. It is obviously down to Meurisse's performance that he hate him so much even after his first scene with Christina … and long to see him killed. Meurisse has one of those faces that seems incapable of forming a smile, and his eyes gleam with a controlled malevolence. Clouzot couldn't really have found a better actor without resorting to a clichéd horror film antagonist.
It may told and filmed in an old school manner – lensed 1.37:1 and, for the most part, told in a matter-of-fact and linear fashion, bereft of the stylistic tricks and individualistic flourishes associated with the French New Wave, which was definitely and defiantly on the way – but the film blends noir with drama with horror in such an insidious way that it becomes something new and dynamic. The relationships are weird and counter-clockwise. Clouzot not only subverts the ethics of the thriller but he inverts the roles of his primary characters and their bonds with one-another to create a ménage-a-tois that defies convention and invites you, right from the get-go, to reappraise your standards. That the wife and the mistress become an avenging force may not seem all that strange or unique given the plot-lines of even the crudest and most obvious soap opera, but the oblique (or dia-oblique) manner in which this bond is so mundanely engendered is what gives it the power to both surprise and to resonate. And he maintains the suspense almost predominantly without music, which is practically unheard of in a film that relies so heavily upon an atmosphere of icy tension and dread. Asides from the more obvious set-pieces that witness Christina creeping along shadow-punctured hallways and reacting to unbearable sights, there is the scene when the cleaner spots something in the grungy pool and makes efforts to retrieve it as the anxious wife looks on from the window. It is hard to imagine sequences such as these remaining unscored in a modern film. But Clouzot feels no need to inject “stingers” into the situation, and although I prefer more of a musical canvas to complement a movie, when a filmmaker has the confidence to go with his instincts and allow pace, performance and plot to supersede all other techniques, I have to admire his approach. And the point is, Diabolique, as frightfully edgy and darkly motivated as it is, doesn’t need the added effect. The documentary stance is entirely appropriate for how this tale is to be told.
This said, Georges Van Parys, who supplied the meagre score that bookends the film, does offer us a delicious variation on the ominous and doom-laded “Dies Irae” theme that saw similarly emphatic use in Kubrick's The Shining.
It should be noted that there is a very curious element regarding the removal of Michel's shoes just before he is to be murdered. Drugged and lapsing into unconsciousness, he demands that Christina take them off, which she does. When Nicole appears and the deed is about to done, she also tells Christina to remove Michel's shoes, which she has already done only a moment before. We see Christina stoop down once more, and she looks at Michel's unshod feet, even appearing to reach down to where she put the shoes beforehand. And then, when the women are carrying his sleeping body to the bath, it is clear that Michel's shoes are back on again. So what is going on here? The point of the shoes is so rammed home to us that this cannot simply be a continuity error - not in a film so carefully crafted. So is it some form of visual trickery that Clouzot is employing to throw us off the scent in some way? Sadly, no. It's nothing of the sort. This is down to the English translated subtitles being wrong. Nicole is actually asking Christine to put his shoes back on for reasons that I won't go into right now. This, however, is sure to cause confusion and consternation for some people.
When Clouzot brings in the apparently jaded and washed-up, but all-too-incisive private detective, Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), events take on that enjoyably frustrating Columbo appeal. It is always funny how we feel animosity towards the “good guy” in one of these mystery dramas. As far as we are concerned, Michel had it coming and we are happy to let the women off the hook. So when a detective shows up, ostensibly to help, and comes with that hideously over-friendly demeanour that simply means he clearly suspects those that we, ourselves, are trying to shelter, the situation takes on that irresistible allure of the scratch you can't itch. We can't take our eyes off the evidence that the women are trying to cover-up. We hear their words and see their reactions to his polite enquiries that don't ring true. And we know that the detective can smell a very large rat in the school grounds. But he's only doing the right thing, isn't he? A man has gone missing and foul play is suspected. He's just doing his job. And yet we hate him because we know – or think we know – what's happened, and this guy is going to throw a spanner in the works. Thus, our own moral allegiance has been swayed and shanghaied. Nobody likes a film to be overtly manipulative – and you get that with weepies and teenage vampire romances – but, here, it is wonderfully perceptive and cuts to the bone simply because the entire story exists within those nebulous shades of grey where right and wrong are unutterably clouded and the moral compass is in a spin.
The school is wonderfully used throughout the film. At first it seems no more intimidating than any other schoolhouse. The boys there are happy enough, even though the food is appalling (the penny-pinching Michel has been buying only scraps about to be slung out) and the attitude of the headmaster towards his staff remarkably severe, the resulting atmosphere perhaps a touch oppressive. We even grow to feel quite comfortable in its setting, Clouzot is using fabulous camera movements and intricate direction to make the place feel spacious and accommodating … inviting, even. But as the movie proceeds and Michel’s body seems to have sauntered off from its watery resting place, the building becomes a place of shadows, secrets and deception. Everyday matters are still attended to, and life goes on around Christina and Nicole but the school suddenly seems both larger and yet more claustrophobic. At times it doesn’t seem able to contain Christina’s wide and anxious eyes, yet at others, it appears to dwarf the women as they struggle to make sense of each new apparent sighting of Michel or each new afterlife “deal” that he appears to have made. Clouzot must have been a mathematician to have utilised his cast so well. He captures scenes of bustling kids, with oodles of energetic behaviour, and muttering teachers moving about and interacting with such visual dexterity and immaculate timing that everything looks smooth and natural and unrehearsed, no matter how much careful coordination there must have been. Sedate yet dreamy, haunted yet clinical, the cinematography from Armand Thirard creates endless snapshots of a descent into madness.
Imagery is important, though it is not specifically lingered-on and doesn't draw any attention to itself. Water plays a huge part in the tightly constructed visual pantheon. We see it pouring from taps, filling up a bath, the pool surface sifted by unwittingly investigators, or hear it dripping. The title sequence depicts a mysterious pattern of shades behind the credits that, only later on, will be revealed as being the sight of the mildewed swimming pool. A body is fished from the Seine – another watery element in a film that revels in taking on a wet and foetid atmosphere of rank distemper. The shaft of light from a quietly opened door, the silent footsteps of someone unknown moving stealthily from room to room. The sound of a typewriter clattering away in the stillness of the night becomes a nightmarish jangle by comparison. The bizarre, but somehow iconic sight of the two women at either end of a huge basket – the means by which they are transporting their victim – is also a lingering one. It seems to depict modern women going about their business … even if that business just happens to be murder.
While it is perfectly accurate to say that Clouzot’s handling of Diabolique isn’t sensational or convention-rattling when compared to the Nouvelle Vogue that would soon come to dominate French Cinema, it misses the mark when you consider the devastating cultural shockwave that his film had upon the genre of thriller/horrors at large. What the learned critics say in the accompanying featurettes pretty much sum up this influential zeitgeist. You watch Diabolique now and you instantly recognise the tricks and traits that have now become de-facto standards of the formula, but Clouzot did them first and, as a direct consequence, shaped how such films would be constructed. Lucio Fulci deliberately referenced the film’s most shocking image in his own gothic nightmare, The Beyond. And the conceit of having the body of a murder victim go missing has surfaced in a vast plethora of chillers ever since Michel’s mysteriously rose from the filthy, stagnant depths. But, by far, the greatest accolade paid the film is with Hitch's Psycho which, as with Diabolique, made the once comforting surroundings of the bathroom a place of utter terror. Even the much later suspenser What Lies Beneath (which bears more than a few other similarities with Clouzot's film) made use of this. Essentially, though, Diabolique set new standards with its measured shock-tactics and supreme rug-pulling. But it should be remembered that these elements would have accounted for nothing if it hadn’t been for the unique performances of the central trio, who all conspire to make the insanity and the cold manipulations of the set-up work so compellingly.
Les Diaboliques is a fascinating and disturbing film, but it is difficult to see it inflaming the imagination of audiences weaned on the likes of The Silence Of The Lambs, Scream or even the far more recent Shutter Island. The extreme lack of genuine incident coupled with the realistic style adopted by all the supporting cast, as well as the distinctive absence of music, is just bound to alienate many from fully appreciating the intelligence and the dark wit at play here. And the biggest irony of all is that those coming fresh to the film will almost certainly suss what is going on because they have seen all those other psycho-thrillers that Clouzot inspired with this fabulously elaborate mystery.
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