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Sometimes a film's setting can become the driving force behind the narrative and in the case of Diabolique (aka Les Diaboliques, 1955), it becomes a character in its own right. Set in a seedy public school for boys in some unspecified French provincial town, Henri-Georges Clouzot's landmark suspense thriller creates a disturbing environment of decay, stagnation and impending dread that surrounds a menage a trois - Michel, a sadistic headmaster; Christina, his long-suffering wife who has a heart condition, and Nicole, the headmaster's much abused mistress who also serves as a schoolteacher. As Michel's cruelty to the two women increases, so does their hatred of him until the duo devise a plot to drug him and stage his death as an accidental drowning in the school's swimming pool. Their plan succeeds but when the police come to investigate and drain the pool, no body is found, leading to a series of increasingly strange and frightening occurrences.
A contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock's whose work was often compared to films by the "master of suspense," Clouzot is not as well known today but Diabolique created quite a stir upon its initial release, generating huge box office profits on both sides of the Atlantic and inspiring Hitchcock to outdo Clouzot's famous bathtub murder sequence with his own infamous shower stabbing in Psycho (1960). The two directors shared other similarities - the way they pre-planned and storyboarded their movies prior to filming, their skill in evoking a feeling of complicity in the viewer, and their attitude about acting. Though Hitchcock was once quoted as saying actors were "cattle," he enjoyed a good working relationship with most of them which wasn't always the case with Clouzot who could be cruel and dictatorial with his cast. For the sequence in Diabolique where the students are served bad fish and the headmaster commands them to eat it, it was rumored that Clouzot actually forced his actors to eat spoiled fish for the scene. In an essay on Diabolique by Ronald Koltnow (in Magill's Survey of Cinema), Simone Signoret was quoted as saying Clouzot "is concerned with every detail, almost to an obsession. He has to work in a constant ambience of crisis. He has to be depressed, he has to be sad. And he expects all his artists and technicians to share his sorrow completely." Certainly, Clouzot's films can seem relentlessly bleak and humorless in comparison to Hitchcock's thrillers which were often alleviated by moments of black comedy and sparkling wit. But, if you watch closely, you'll glimpse fleeting moments of macabre, deadpan humor in Diabolique like the look on Christina's face as she pours her husband a second glass of drugged whiskey.
Clouzot once admitted his sole purpose in making Diabolique: "I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts - the child who hides her head under the bedcovers and begs, 'Daddy, Daddy, frighten me." But Diabolique is no simple amusement; it's a dark, decadent tale that glistens like an ugly diamond. One of the most telling sequences in the movie is Michel's carefully planned demise which proves Hitchcock's point that murder can be hard work. From the lugging of the heavy, water-soaked body to a desperate attempt to submerge the corpse in the stagnant pool, the entire act of murder is shown to be a ghastly business indeed. [SPOILER ALERT!] Equally memorable is the double twist finale which has been copied repeatedly in subsequent thrillers though none can top the original shock ending of seeing a corpse remove his own eyeballs (a homage to Luis Bunuel's and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou, 1929).
Not surprisingly, Diabolique divided the critics over its merits. Among those who praised it was critic Paul Dehn who wrote "Clouzot handles this bloodcurdling material in the one way guaranteed to make it horrifically effective, i.e., by rejecting every melodramatic artifice...and photographing his story head-on - at human eye-level - as though he were making a newsreel." On the other hand, some were offended by the film's overt cruelty to Christina, the only marginally sympathetic character in the film. Critic Dilys Powell mirrored the opinions of the latter reviewers when she dismissed the film, writing, "Grand Guignol sets out merely to horrify. I don't think one should take moral exception if it succeeds." In spite of the controversy, Diabolique ended up sharing the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film with Umberto D. and even today, you can see homages to Clouzot's thriller in the movies of Stanley Kubrick (the haunted bathtub scene in his version of The Shining, 1980) and other filmmakers. Diabolique later inspired a thinly disguised B-movie remake by Curtis Harrington in 1967 entitled Games with Simone Signoret playing a variation on her Nicole character, a made-for-television version called Reflections of Murder (1974) featuring Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett and Sam Waterston, and, of course, there was the forgettable 1997 remake starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.
Diabolique was based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac entitled Celle Qui N'etait Plus. Hitchcock would later adapt one of their novels and bring it to the screen as Vertigo (1958), now considered his undisputed masterpiece and recently placed in the top ten poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine.
Producer/Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Frederic Grendel, Rene Masson, based on the novel Celle qui n'etait plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Art Direction: Leon Barsacq
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Editing: Madeleine Gug
Music: Georges Van Parys
Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Vera Clouzot (Christina Delasalle), Paul Meurisse (Michel Delasalle), Charles Vanel (Inspector Fichet), Pierre Larquey (Drain).
by Jeff Stafford