Les diaboliques (1955)
“See it, be amazed at it, but… BE QUIET ABOUT IT!”
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cast: Simone Signoret, VÃ©ra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
Synopsis: The wife of a cruel headmaster and his mistress conspire to kill him, but after the murder is committed, his body disappears, and strange events begin to plague the two women.
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director Henri-Georges Clouzot) run a decaying boarding school in the French countryside. The school belongs to Christina, but Michel runs it with tyrannical discipline. He’s bad-tempered, miserly and petulant. As with most people who don’t have any, money is very important to him. His wife despises him because he slaps her around then forces himself upon her.
The school is small and second-rate, with only about two-dozen male pupils and four teachers, including Christina. You get the feeling that for the teachers this place represents one more staging post in the irreversible decline of their careers and lives. The two male teachers (Pierre Larquey and Michel Serrault) swap cynical jokes and barbed comments about Delassalle. The third teacher is a vaguely blowsy blonde named Nicole (Simone Signoret) who was, until recently, Delassalle’s mistress. She is plotting to kill Delassalle, and persuades Christina to help her in her plan.
During a three-day public holiday, the two women drive to Nicole’s property in the small town of Noirt. From there, Christina phones her husband and informs him she has begun divorce proceedings in order to goad him into impulsively travelling to Noirt to confront her. She offers him a spiked drink, and once he has passed out she and Nicole drown him in the bath. They then transport his body back to the school and dump it into the filthy, neglected swimming pool, expecting that it will soon be discovered. When, after a couple of nerve-wracking days, his body still hasn’t surfaced, they engineer a situation that enables them to order the draining of the pool, only to discover once it is emptied of water, that the body has disappeared.
To reveal any more of the plot of Les Diabolique would be to risk spoiling the movie for anyone yet to see it, but suffice to say that it’s probably the most Hitchcockian film that Hitchcock never made (Clouzot was sometimes referred to as the French Hitchcock, and reportedly acquired the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel just hours before Hitchcock put in an offer. To compensate him, the writers penned the novel on which Hitchcock’s Vertigo would later be based.) Clouzot’s film has suspense and tension in abundance, but also takes the time to really get under the skin of its lead characters, none of whom benefit from such close scrutiny. They’re all wretched creatures, in fact, each trapped in a sordid and degrading place in their lives, a fact that’s reflected in the neglected condition of the school in which they live and work. Everyone wishes they were somewhere or someone else, and views the world through jaded eyes.
Unfortunately, the superb mood and the tension of the situation created by Clouzot, are let down by the mechanics of the plot. For a start, Christina and Nicole have to be the worst murderers ever committed to celluloid. The plan is solid enough, but their execution of it looks like the manifestation of a subconscious desire to be caught. Having committed the murder, the women leave their victim to soak in the tub overnight, alerting the pedantic lodger upstairs to the fact because the plumbing shudders and whines when they fill and drain the bath. In fact, so much screen time is devoted to his outrage at the noise being made that I fully expected him to play a part in any police investigation which followed, but he is forgotten once he has helped Nicole and Christina load the wicker basket in which the body is hidden onto their van. Back at the school, they dump Delassalle’s body into the pool seconds after they have seen one of the teachers visit the toilet in the schoolhouse. Then, Christina acts so anxious as she waits for the body to be discovered, staring nervously at the pool, and pressing money into the bemused caretaker’s palm to ensure he drains it immediately that, had the body been discovered, her behaviour couldn’t help but raise suspicion.
While these points prove irritating, they can at least be overlooked while the film journeys smoothly towards its conclusion, but somewhere in the final act it seems to want to stop and admire the scenery, so that the tension and suspense seeps from it like air from a punctured tyre. The movie has a twist, and it’s a big one, but, while it may have been innovative back in 1955, it’s been done to death since. That’s not the fault of Les Diaboliques – you could say, in fact, that it’s a victim of its own success – but many seasoned filmgoers will guess what’s going on long before the big reveal finally comes. To be fair to the film, it offers no clues to the twist, but when you’re halfway certain about what’s to come it does make the final half-hour something of a slog.
(Reviewed 7th February 2013)