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Simone Signoret wrote in her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be, that the real person responsible for getting the rights of the book purchased and the film made was Véra Clouzot, not Henri. Simone wrote, "The truth of the matter is that it was she who wanted to make this film... She wanted to make this film and she wanted to make people think he was forcing her to do it." She added, "Clouzot asked me because he needed me for the part. Above all, he needed an actress whom Véra knew. She wasn't an actress at all and he wanted her to work with a friend, in a kind of family atmosphere."

Henri-Georges Clouzot was the kind of director, like Hitchcock, who had to have everything planned out. Every shot, every detail. He once remarked that blank pieces of white paper terrified him. He wanted everything written down and planned out. When it came time to film, all that was required was to follow the blueprint carefully laid down. Diabolique was no different.

Planning every detail also meant Clouzot had little patience for actors who didn't understand his vision. When Simone Signoret signed on, she knew what she was in for but she respected him and drew a clear line between shoot time and down time. She said she would tell him to "go to hell" at the hotel where they were staying but would never say, "merde to him on his own set."

The origins of Diabolique go back much farther than the purchase of the book rights. During the war, Clouzot found work in Nazi-occupied France with Continental Films and his work with this company led to his official banishment from the French film industry until 1947 when he was allowed to direct again. His interest had long been in thrillers but now, he wanted them to be more than just cleverly plotted exercises in suspense. Like Alfred Hitchcock, whom he admired, he wanted his films to be about human nature, viewed through the prism of a suspense thriller. By 1955, he had perfected this method of examination and with Diabolique, created a malevolent masterpiece.

The film would not merely be a thriller but a study in the darkest sides of human nature. The resonating motifs of water and rot would be augmented by a strong hint of the supernatural. In fact, if one were to stop watching the film a mere five minutes before its closing title card, it could not be said with certainty whether or not it was a ghost story or a murder mystery. This was, of course, part of the plan. Rather than engage the audience in only one choice of misdirection, Clouzot chooses two, as touted by Nicole and Christina. Nicole thinks someone is playing a game with them, possibly for blackmail. Christina thinks Michel has come back from the dead and will haunt her until she is driven insane. This is a choice that Clouzot returned to time and time again in his work. He stated, "The great rule is to push the contrasts as far as they will go, the drastic highlights being separated by 'neutral zones.' To move the spectator I always aim at emphasizing the chiaroscuro, opposing light and shade. It is for this reason that my films have been criticized as oversimplifications."

Diabolique thus becomes as much about the two women's point of view as about the thriller aspects of the mystery. Nicole sees malicious intent all around her. Her view of the world is one in which she gets what she wants and if someone else tries to stop it, she stops them. Christina is riddled with guilt and views all her actions as inherently in need of forgiveness. When she finally decides to make a difference and take control of her destiny, she ends up too riddled with guilt to be anything but her own enemy.

by Greg Ferrara






















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