Les diaboliques (1955, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
I don’t think it is any secret that I love horror films of almost all kinds, and these lovely old-school thrillers are some of my favorites. They drip with tension, mind-games, and the type of psychological terror that has mostly been replaced today with the torture-porn that just requires you to squirm in fear of bodily harm. I know that if I were to show them to some of my students, they wouldn’t understand what it is that I find so compelling about them—there is something that doesn’t quite translate for some reason. Perhaps it is the reactions—the shock, the fear of things that we can’t explain, or even (especially) an apprehension of the supernatural—that doesn’t work for many people. They are extremely stylized, and they require attention, immersion even, a suspension of disbelief that perhaps we can’t access in our skeptical postmodern world. Les diaboliques (which translates to “the devils”) belongs to this camp quite clearly. So much so, in fact, that Hitchcock tried very hard to get his hands on the source material to develop into a film himself. A comparison from Hitch might’ve been a fantastic exploration of technique, but in all honesty, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s work is iconic.
The story opens on a school for boys set in the French countryside. The school is run by the tyrannical headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), who is only concerned with saving money, to the extend that rotten food is served to the students and staff alike and requests for another glass of wine receive the third-degree. Working with him at the school are his beautiful and delicate wife Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director’s real life spouse) and his brassy mistress, Nicole Horner (the stunning Simone Signoret), an arrangement that might concern anyone other than the extremely confident Michel. But rather than sparring, the two women are sympathetic—both know what a monster Michel can be, and they bond over their shared frustrations, especially about the ways the boys are treated. As conditions worsen, the two women conspire to murder him together. They act out their plan, dumping the body in the school’s scummy pool to make it look like an accident, and then they wait, hoping that the body will be discovered organically.
Except Christina begins to feel guilty, to over-think, and she has the pool drained so that she can be sure, so that things can be set in motion. But when the pool is emptied, the body is missing, and strange things begin to happen—the suit Michel was drowned in is mysteriously returned from the cleaners, and one of the boys swears to seeing his headmaster and being admonished for breaking a window—though all of them seem to have reasonable explanations. But Christina is tortured by each revelation, leading her to fight with Nicole, and she begins to panic. As the mystery of what really happened begins to unfold, the tension ratchets up notch by notch until the investigations of the local police push things towards their climax.
The film is gorgeously shot, the acting is often quiet and understated (especially from Signoret, who is always cool as a cucumber-gin-fizz) and the focus on Vera Clouzot isn’t wasted. She is luminous and fragile and then by turns tougher than she can even understand. The eeriness of many of the plot’s twists are created almost solely on story and reaction—a really masterful development of suspense—and the rest are done through the use of mirrors and reflections, sharp camera use, and the chilling environs of the school. But what gets me, and what I always forget about, is the use of music, or perhaps I should say the lack thereof. Used quite sparingly, there are very, very few places where the score pops in to elevate the suspense, and I think the silence and the use of sound effects is so compelling that (especially when contrasted with Hitchcock’s legendary musical intrusions) it makes me question why we use music so much anyway.
I highly recommend getting a hold of the Criterion Collection edition—not only is the quality quite good, but there is a fantastic introduction by Serge Bromberg, the thoroughly engaging and highly knowledgeable film preservationist from whom I stole much of my information about this film. He’s totally charming and he knows so, so much about this movie and its history. I’d watch it after the film though, in case you don’t already know how it ends. The ending is worth the wait, and then you can see one of the first post-film spoiler warnings beseeching viewers not to tell others what happened so that they can see the film on their own. It is a great film, so tense, so beautiful, and so very much better than most of today’s offerings.
Next Installment: Nosferatu (1929)