DIABOLIQUE (Les Diaboliques) B+
France (116 mi) 1955 d: Henri-Georges Clouzot
You can lead a corpse to water but you can’t make it sink. —Newsweek magazine review
Made immediately following Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) (1953), both are suspenseful dramas that take a long time getting started, paying plenty of attention setting the scene, introducing the characters, and establishing the various conflicts between the characters. Actually this film is a throwback to earlier eras, where the stylistic use of shadows and darkness prevent the audience from seeing too much during suspenseful moments, where it’s often unclear what’s happening onscreen until it’s finally sprung upon you at the last moment. Reminiscent of Val Lewton productions and Jacques Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE (1942), where the thrill of the picture is the director’s ability to maximize the power of suggestion through shadows and offscreen sound, also the swooning female leads of Cukor’s GASLIGHT (1944), Hitchcock’s own Suspicion (1941), or Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby (1968), where the director delights in tormenting his lead character, often indistinguishable whether it’s real or imagined. Adapting a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writing team used by Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958), where Clouzot barely beat Hitchcock in obtaining the rights for this film, supposedly by only a matter of hours, something that apparently irritated Hitchcock, where Psycho (1960) was his jealous attempt to outdo Clouzot, a contemporary of Hitchcock, actually known as the French Hitchcock, whose work was a rival to the Master of Suspense. DIABOLIQUE with its terrifyingly strange plot twists was a huge box office success, where both utilize famous bathroom scenes. Both directors were known for their meticulous preparation before shooting, where they knew how it was going to look, storyboarding all their scenes, where the film was largely finished before they ever stepped onto the set. Hitchcock was so confident of what he already captured on film that watching the daily shoots never interested him. Clouzot had a different approach to actors, as his wife Véra Clouzot was often his lead, but the intensity and borderline obsession with perfection in filmmaking is something they both share. Hitchcock relishes wit and humor in his sophisticated thrillers, while Clouzot’s movies are decidedly more bleak and downbeat, but both share a love for the dark and macabre, where ordinary people can be compelled by circumstances to commit despicable acts.
Set in a small, rundown, private boy’s school owned by Christina (Véra Clouzot), her husband and school headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) is abusive and bullying, the kind of mean-spirited and dominating villain that deserves his comeuppance, where Christina is often seen cowering in fear, where one of the other teachers, Nicole, Simone Signoret providing the real backbone, is often seen coming to her side. Certainly in the tradition of Suspicion, Christina has one of the weakest constitutions of any lead character in the movies, where it’s suggested she’s a former Catholic nun, continually sick and bedridden, complaining of a weak heart, but anyone with a relentlessly vile husband like Michel would have one hell of a migraine headache to deal with all the time. Apparently, through gossip heard by people working on the grounds, Nicole is also Michel’s mistress, opening the film sporting a black eye. Their affair seems to have gone cold, however, as the two women are often seen commiserating with one another, wondering what they can do about Michel. While the origin remains a mystery, by the time the audience finds out about it the two have already hatched a plan to do away with the poor bastard, drugging him before drowning him in a bathtub. Despite Christina’s continual second thoughts, forever beleaguered by every possible outcome gone wrong, perhaps just wishing Nicole would go ahead and get it over with. But Nicole’s no fool, as she’s much more steady and level-headed than the ever flighty Christina. The two go back and forth, like arguing teenagers, but finally decide they have to do it over the school’s brief holiday. No one deserves it more, from the audience’s point of view, where the spectators become willing accomplices to the final grisly act, where it’s not so easy to lug around a dead body and then try to get rid of the evidence, as they do by dumping him in the school’s murky swimming pool which is already a cesspool of filth. All they can do is return to normal and let someone else discover the missing body, but of course nothing is that easy, as they eventually concoct a plan to have the pool drained but the body is mysteriously missing.
The two women have held it all together so far, but soon become unraveled by the inexplicable turn of events, driven to near madness by the ever changing circumstances that suggest it’s possible he’s not dead. One of the kids reports he’s seen him, and is punished dearly for this outburst, as once Michel’s been reported missing, there’s been no other sign of him. But strange clues start popping up that suggest he may be vowing revenge, but every one turns out empty, especially a missing body dropped in the Seine that matches his description. Christina’s interest in the dead body attracts the interest of a retired police inspector, Charles Vanel, a pestering, old-fashioned character who always seems to be snooping around, likeable and charming, overly polite and sweetly sympathetic, where his tireless pursuit of following every clue is the likely origin of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo character, one of the more popular police detectives in American television (1971 – 2003). The two women are literally driven up a wall, where they unravel before each other as they simply can’t bear the suspense, feeling guilty about what they’ve done, driven to near confession, where each will implicate the other. Clouzot has a tendency to string along the characters for as long as possible, slowly enveloping them in a web of lies and deceit, where especially with Christina, she always seems on the edge of a mental breakdown, where the shadows surrounding her grow larger, consumed by her ever building guilt and paranoia. Clouzot goes to great lengths to surround her with less and less light, until eventually she’s literally fumbling around in the darkness, unable to distinguish between what’s real or imagined, growing dizzy from the ideas swimming around in her head. Simultaneously, Clouzot elevates the irritating use of sound, where creaky doors open, water is dripping, and the sounds of footsteps can be heard, all adding to a growing sense of panic in the air that creates a sense of hysteria. From the outset, that foul stagnant water in the pool is a symbol of lingering trouble, the kind that can’t be washed away, where long afterwards it will be hard to shake the effects of this movie, where like Hitchcock, Clouzot delights in terrorizing the audience.