Les Diaboliques (1955)

aka Diabolique

D: Henri-Georges Clouzot
S: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot

The wife and mistress of a cruel and controlling boarding school headmaster plot and carry out his murder. The troubles begin early however and never seem to end, with small mistakes and frayed nerves aplenty threatening to unravel the conspiracy before it has even run its course. The tough, bitter mistress (Simone Signoret) almost seems to have to bully her would-be partner in crime (Véra Clouzot). The latter suffers from a heart condition and seems ready to topple over from anxiety at every moment, a possibility which seems increasingly likely as the plan to make her husband's death look like an accident keeps going wrong. But her hatred for her brutish and domineering husband (Paul Meruisse) is enough to get her through. Meanwhile retired police detective Charles Vanel has been sniffing around, and there are strange and inexplicable goings-on at the boarding school which suggest that this plot runs deeper than is immediately obvious.

There is a relatively familiar story running through director Henri-Georges Clouzot's film of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel Celle qui n'était plus. Though the level of explicit cruelty depicted in a realistic manner is higher than had previously been seen, these are still much the same goings-on as had been seen for at least two previous generations in novels, stageplays, and latterly films in the thriller/melodrama genre. The characters are little more than stock types and in spite of the twists and turns in the plot, it boils down to little more than an old dark house mystery with creaking stairs and shocking revelations lurking in the attic. This is more a fault of the source material than the director. Boileau's writing would later be transformed from similarly uninspired source material into a cinematic masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (based on his novel D'entre les morts). Clouzot, fresh from his success with The Wages of Fear, proves to be a lesser hand than Hitchcock, but stacked against that kind of competition, one can forgive him running second. Les Diaboliques is a very well directed film which sustains a sense of psychological unease and creates several scenes of almost nail-biting suspense which raise the film above its roots. Unfortunately in spite of rich cinematography, careful, subtle editing and generally good performances, there is not enough going on underneath to make the it anything more than pretty and insubstantial.

Thematically, Les Diaboliques is a bogstandard story of betrayal and revenge which foregrounds a vision of the female villain drawn from film noir. The modern woman seeking to carve her own place in the social and economic world had recently become a feature of many American films, and here the French run with a variant on the same theme. The script attempts to integrate contextual characterisation insofar as Clouzot's character is shown to be religiously-minded (a former nun), and is thus torn between Old Testament vengeance and New Testament guilt, and there are whispers of a bizarre menáge-a-trois and suggestions of raw sexuality which threaten to take the whole thing into the domain of psychosexual hysteria of the Black Narcissus vein. It never gets that far tough. Had the film been made twenty years previously by a director emerging out of the surrealist/impressionist school, a sense of the burden of religious belief and repression might have been an actual theme, but here in the post-war world it is nothing more than a plot device which adds minor complication. Though there are hidden agendas and deep, dark motivations driving the other characters also, again there is no real sense that any of it has influenced the film on anything other than a superficial level. Director Clouzot is more concerned with wringing tension out of his plot than trying to make any kind of statement, which is all well and good but which makes the film shallow.

There are some beautifully executed scenes though, including the famous climax where Clouzot wanders around the creepy school late at night. Though drawn from precedents in horror and melodrama of the previous decades, the scene is handled with a controlled realism which makes it effective. The film throughout has a detached and observational tone reminiscent of the first half of The Wages of Fear, which allows Clouzot to really turn the screws with tilting shadows and creaking doors when he wants to. In general this stylistic affinity for the banal can be seen as part of a movement away from the sensational depiction of wickedness towards an almost casual variety of evil later seen again in Powell's Peeping Tom and Hitchcock's Psycho. The entire thriller genre was undergoing transformation, and Les Diaboliques is interesting because it hovers between the winds of the old and the new. It lacks the psychological dimensions of its successors but eschews the overstatement of its predecessors. Another notable feature which contributes to its sense of reality is the lack of a music score, which one of the characters draws attention to at one point and which shows just how strong the imagery really is.

Les Diaboliques is a well crafted potboiler which will entertain genre fans and give them more than their money's worth in terms of technical quality. It is not as gripping as The Wages of Fear (but then few films are) or as haunting as the later Vertigo (again, there's little shame in running Hitchcock a close second), but in itself it does a perfectly good job of drawing suspense and thrills out of material which could have been completely uninteresting if made by other hands. Perhaps the proof of this is that the story has not only been imitated unsuccessfully many times, but remade in the US in 1996 with Sharon Stone in the Signoret role. It continues to influence filmmakers and has found a place in the collective cinematic imagination, so it certainly bears watching both for casual viewers and movie buffs, the latter in particular.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.

Note: The Region 1 DVD is a Criterion edition which comes with no special features. The Region 2 DVD is a very good transfer in a box reproducing the original poster and comes with a couple of trailers, which, for once, makes it a more appealing purchase than its Region 1 equivalent.