Original release: January 29th, 1955
Running time: 114 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language: French with English subtitles
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Writers: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi
Cast: Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
I first saw Les Diaboliques in a hostel common room in Toronto, lights down, huddled around a 12 inch TV, a week or so after seeing the lacklustre American remake on VCR. Boy, was I in for a surprise. I found it to be much more intense, and much more captivating than it’s reincarnation, and it doesn’t wuss out on the ending. I saw it again at the BFI, and the experience was only intensified.
Les Diaboliques is moody and dark, has the archetypal bad leading male, the two opposite female stereotypes, and is quintessentially pessimistic in tone. The moral ambiguity of it keeps the audience on tenterhooks, unable to guess where the story is going to turn. It doesn’t preach; it is dedicated to the story and the story alone.
Headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse) is married to Christina (Vera Clouzot) but is having an affair with Nicole (Simone Signoret), but is equally manipulative and violent towards them both. Backed into a corner, they conspire to lure him to Nicole’s home over the school break, and kill him. But after the murder is committed, the body goes missing and bizarre events begin to plague to the two women…
Christina is hideously downtrodden by her conniving husband who has taken her for her wealth. She controls nothing in her life and her school, but won’t file for a divorce as it is against her religion. She swings from hysteria to remorse to resolve in a heartbeat and seems to have no check on her emotions. She takes medication for a potentially fatal heart condition, and seeks constant reassurance from Nicole.
The strong, sexy Nicole smokes wears short skirts and sunglasses to hide her black eye. She’s firmly in control of the situation until she too begins to unravel, leaving Christina bedridden and alone in the school.
In a love triangle of the strangest kind, Christina and Nicole have formed a strong friendship over their mutual hatred of and oppression by Michel. But this again is a situation over which Christina has no control and is ultimately destined to go awry, it’s just a question of when and how.
This black and white thriller gives nothing away until it’s ready, keeping the audience guessing on the edge of their sofas. Draining a swimming pool has never been so tense. The lack of non diegetic sound ramps up the intensity, the long periods of silence ache to be broken. The creak of a door and the hurried footsteps down darkened corridors have never seemed so loud.
The pay-off at the end of the film is perfectly timed too, with the right mix of mystery, intensity and betrayal, tying off all of the loose ends. A note from Clouzot encourages the audience not to tell their friends how the film ends, but having seen this film more than once, knowing the twist does not ruin everything.
Les Diaboliques was famously snatched out of the hands of Hitchcock, it is easy to see how it could have been made into a suspense thriller classic. Hitchcock was inspired and instead made Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, has stated that his favourite film was Les Diaboliques; this is a movie that reaches far beyond its native France.
Francois Truffaut suggested that Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote the original novel with Hitchcock in mind for the screen adaptation. Regardless, Clouzot created one hell of a thriller, and we’re just glad that Les Diaboliques was made.
Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).
When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.
She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.