Les Diaboliques (Clouzot, 1955)

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You can imagine Alfred Hitchcock himself grinning with glee as he watched Henri Georges Clouzot’s masterful psychological mystery Les Diaboliques (1955) unfolding before his eyes for the first time – and subsequently itching to slyly incorporate a slew of the legendary French director’s subtle techniques of manipulation into his own work.

From a relatively simple set-up, Clouzot – who made the equally famous Wages of Fear two years prior in 1953 – turns the screws on his protagonists whilst toying with the preconceptions of his helplessly captivated audience. The setting is a Parisian boarding school where the headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse) is a real bastard, a cold-hearted dictator and ruthless womanizer who mistreats both his fragile wife Christina (wife of the director, Vera Clouzot) and his mistress, also a member of staff, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret).

Surprisingly the women are friends and secretly they concoct a plan to rid themselves of Michel’s tyrannical presence once and for all. Though united by their misery and fantasies of freedom, the women are nonetheless polar opposites: Christina is a former nun with strong religious convictions, conflicted on a deep, fundamental level by the prospect of becoming entangled in murder most foul despite her long-suffering status; Nicole, on the other hand, is staunch and aloof, more overtly possessed of the cold calculation required to perform a task she feels they must undertake to cleanse their lives of Michel’s influence.

Christina plays along with Nicole’s master plan of luring Michel from Paris to a remote place, unconvinced that she can actually follow through with the deed. It all works to perfection however, and horrified by what she’s done, Christina assists in sneaking the body back to the boarding school before dumping it into the murky depths of the unused swimming pool where they hope for its inadvertent discovery by a student. 

Clouzot manipulates this scenario with a delicate hand as a series of suspenseful moments ensue, the women paralysed with anticipation as the moment of discovery seemingly nears. Before long the pool is drained according to their own frantic directive – more as a means of putting an end to their anxiety once and for all – and from here the real fun begins.  

An unexpected sight is waiting at the bottom of the now waterless pit and the sight of a fainting Christina signals the escalation of the mystery as Clouzot ensures his female protagonists are frazzled by the inexplicable contradictions, uneasily lurching from one possibility to another in trying to uncover the truth. With unexpected revelations spun like a web around the central narrative, fraying the women’s nerves with every new twist, there’s the implication of an almost supernatural force at work.

All three leads give superlative performances, the cold-eyed evaluations of Signoret matched by the unravelling fragility of Clouzot as the fatalistic wife with the weak heart, convinced it can only end one way, declaring “we’re monsters, and God doesn’t like monsters.” Meurisse, as the irredeemable headmaster, makes his mark too; you want him dead as much as the women in the earlier scenes. There’s also a neat supporting role in the second half for Charles Vanel as a leathery old retired detective whose nosiness and curiosity ensure he becomes a meaningful part of the action, complicating matters for all.

With it’s chilling final ten minutes – a countdown to the final twist, a deliriously fiendish denouement – the film ramps up suspense to an almost unbearable pitch. Though literally translated as ‘The Devils’, the title Les Diaboliques could be just as indicative of the diabolical seduction of Clouzot’s film, a template for dozens of mysteries to follow, though rarely, if ever, surpassed.

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