Well over sixty years after it inspired tremendous creative echoes, many of the movie’s key lessons are but a shadow in a modern fanfare of lurid exposure. As a consequence, audiences no longer identify as strongly with the peril of characters thrust into the act of killing, because the pretense has been reduced to a shallow mandatory device in a genre saturated in the blood of nameless victims. The distinct difference, needless to say, is that men and women behind such acts were once insightful driving influences: avatars of the darkest corners of the human soul corrupted by some unknown vulnerability. Movies like “Diabolique” – and to another degree, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” – acted as watershed examples of that reality. But now their fascinating psychology is often replaced by flimsy subtexts or gadgets, and few care as much about the decay of a mind as they do the austerity of visual vulgarity. Had Clouzot or Hitchcock survived long enough to witness their ideas weathered by such desensitization, one wonders if the cinema’s great thrill-makers would have retired in protest.
Yet to see “Diabolique” with that hindsight is to discover, much to one’s pleasure, the buried nostalgia of a more tempered sensibility of the past. Like the greater of Hitchcock’s essential films, the movie is a skillful marriage of ingredients that tread dangerously close to the edge of reasoning while still absorbing them in impeccable artistic standards. As the movie opens, the film takes us into the French countryside, to the halls of a boarding school for boys run by an imprudent chauvinist named Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse). His is a character inaugurated by the words and actions of others; schoolboys, careless and without discipline, shrink off into silent corners when he walks past them, and male teachers exchange dejected glances intercut with dialogue seemingly circumscribed for personal protection – from him, there is no doubt. And then we meet the two lone female teachers: Nicole (Simone Signoret), who first hides details of her face behind sunglasses, and Christina, a charming Latin lady whose sweet demeanor fades, quite rapidly, in close proximity to Michel, her husband (she also owns the school, which he would inherit in the event of her death). They two women interact around others with strained formality, but together they share a friendship that is as unlikely as it is inexplicable, and when Simone reveals a black eye beneath her shades, neither feigns shock; there is only the sense that this is simply another bruise in a long history of ongoing abuse.
What unites them? They share a mutual hatred for Michel, who uses them both, in different intervals, for sexual stimulation as well as verbal and physical cruelty, often in the same breath. A male teacher notates their bond in an early scene while spying their concern for one another: “See, the legal wife is consoling the mistress!” Yes, but perhaps there is more to their interactions than just sympathetic commonality. The movie does not directly reveal so, and fragments of their mysterious conversations are heard mostly in passing as the camera fills its foreground with the superficial chit-chatter of others. Occasionally, a schoolboy will accidentally eavesdrop on a hushed discussion long enough to indicate ulterior agendas – of what exactly, Clouzot is not eager to reveal too soon, because to do so would be to undermine the whole point. Nonetheless, what is about to occur to these people is clearly out of step with their grinding routine, and only after a wicker basket is ominously pulled from an attic and loaded into their car does the film find comfort in overwhelming its heroines with a sense of shattered perspective. To them, what they are about to do is not simply about choice, but about finding relief through the only means available to them.
Their plot: to lure Michel towards the city and into an apartment they both share on long weekends, where they intend to drug him, drown him in a bathtub and then audaciously dump his body into a swimming pool on the school grounds, hoping to make it all look like a random accident. Simone is driven by this pre-meditated impulse without regret or question, but Christina, gentle and sensitive and plagued with a weak heart, finds great discouragement in the notion that her only escape may lie in the death of her terrible husband. Because her emotions are erratic in anticipation of the deed, there is a doubt that hangs over the events; does she even have the courage to seriously contemplate the decision? Can she go through with it all and maintain a lie? Or will her guilt overtake her and undermine the alibi? The screenplay by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi frames her panic in a way that creates a deceptive context, and when Michel’s body turns up missing after the swimming pool is emptied, our certainty in the events is challenged further not just by fascinating twists in the story, but also by the reliability of its witnesses (when a child informs the adults that he was punished by the same principal who has gone missing, is he caught in a childish lie, or adding emphasis to a distorted reality?).
Our intrigue is earned, not mandated. An idea this ruthless in nature could easily suggest otherwise on the basis of merely being, but “Diabolique” is not content to simply allow the premise to occupy itself. Like an urgent symphony, it rises and settles in dynamic passages, and we sense that the important details dwell within the unheard notes. That unsettling quality is ultimately what gives the movie its distinctive stamp, and Clouzot, so cheerfully eager to dangle his audience over psychological coals, grounds it in a style that emphasizes claustrophobia and shadows in order to fuel the hysteria of his troubled characters. Many of his images probably would never have made it past Hollywood censors, though many of them certainly inspired later directors. Consider, as an example, the inevitable murder sequence; after Michel is urged on to drink from a bottle of liquor laced with a sleeping agent, the two women pull his unconscious body to the bathtub, already full of water, and hold him under until no breath emerges; the following morning, his face is turned upward in a horrific death stare that clearly inspired Jack Nicholson’s own in “The Shining” (Kubrick was also motivated by another image in the climax, and I’ll leave that for you to discover). Meanwhile, other moments are used to erase any possibility of Michel’s redemption, and the most striking occurs when he rapes his own wife; as their figures disappear behind a wall, Christina’s urgent pleas of “no” carry over to the next shot, where it is clear her despicable husband has not only had his way with her, but taken total delight in it.
Like Hitchcock, his English equivalent, Clouzot saw his actors as instruments, and often pushed them to the periphery of their abilities. Stories circulated quickly amongst film societies of the tense atmosphere he created with his actors on set of “The Wages of Fear,” about a dangerous mission to transport nitroglycerine – despite many of them taking ill in the harsh South American climate, his drive was incessant and unflinching, and many of them came to blows as pressure to complete the film added strain to the endeavors. Similar hostilities seem to be on display in “Diabolique,” particular in the stellar performance by Vera Clouzot, Henri’s then wife. Her face and mannerisms are so visibly precarious that one suspects violent outbursts from the director preceded many critical takes, and cinematographer Armand Thirard seems eager to hone in closer as her eyes and face are distorted into expressions of outright alarm. In contrast, the regal Simone Signoret maintains a stoic quality throughout her scenes – as a counter-balance to the unravelling of Christina, no doubt, though Signoret’s own persevering quality was that she always seemed three steps ahead of her peers mentally. She would go on to maintain that standard in a handful of successful French films over the next thirty years, but Vera, so young and impressionable, only made one additional film for her husband before succumbing (eerily enough) to a heart attack at age 46.
The finale, a brilliant marriage of perfect cinematography and lighting in a dark and silent corridor, is nearly thrown off balance by a reveal that seems, in the moment, like an impulsive cop-out. But it exists primarily as a means to inspire doubt – uncertainty not just in events, but in perceptions, details, developments, and the general feelings associated with being caught in a dangerous trap with circular revelations. We refer often to Alfred Hitchcock in finding those qualities, and no wonder; he and the French director were not competitors but mutual instigators. Clouzot’s impulse to make “Diabolique,” in fact, correlated directly to the fact that the source novel was written by Thomas Narcejac, who also wrote the story that would inspire “Vertigo,” a movie he thought very highly of. Likewise, the latter’s famous final shot in this movie, a blatant demand on the audience to preserve secrecy in the final twist, inspired the promotional campaign of “Psycho.” Between the two of them, movies learned how to master the intricate language of suspense in a time when the concept was often painted in coarse strokes.
Hitchock’s career carried on for many more years with varying levels of success, but Clouzot, unable to adapt to the abrasive cultural demands of French New Wave, got lost in a haze of obscurity as voices like Truffaut and Goddard assumed control over France’s volatile film industry. Nowadays, his name barely registers in the archive of important movie artists, although several of his films maintain some notoriety (in addition to “Diabolique” and “The Wages of Fear,” his “Le Corbeau: The Raven” remains one of the most haunting visions of European cinema). Many of this movie’s secrets are muted by today’s grainy standards, but like “Psycho,” the core thesis remains potent: when it comes to the wicked acts of those with questionable morality, there is often more to the story than just a blanket surface dismissal, and the final act of terror only opens new doors for those living with what they have done. Some of the most fascinating characters in fiction are not the underdogs or the inevitable heroes, but the ambiguous sorts who are capable of inflicting great pain or injustice as a consequence of their own psychological weathering. Think of how dull their personalities, how static their intentions, would be had they not had a distinctive archetype paving the tumultuous road for them. By the end of Clouzot’s thoughtful and entertaining movie, one almost can imagine Nicole Horner, still emotionless and unwavering, comparing notes in a padded cell with the likes of Norman Bates.
Written by DAVID KEYES
"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which exist to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at Criterion.com.
"Diabolique" is the ninth article in this series.
"Diabolique" is the ninth article in this series.