1955’s Diabolique, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, was adapted from the book Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the rights to which Alfred Hitchcock missed by a matter of hours. That must have riled him and thank goodness it did. One of the greatest filmmakers of all time being in a bit of strop would give Psycho an extra sting. It's telling that it even shares the monochrome of Diabolique, despite having worked in colour for the previous decade.
After all, Hitchcock made Vertigo from Boileau and Narcejac’s D'entre les morts a couple of years after Clouzot gazumped him on their earlier work and, while it’s since been re-evaluated to be arguably Hitchcock’s most enduring masterpiece for which he had laid himself bare, Vertigo wasn’t the commercial success he had a thirst for. No, he needed the purity of Psycho to scratch an itch made especially irritating because the Hitchcock brand was based on his mastery of suspense.
Henri-Georges Clouzot possessed that mastery too, in spades, as he had already demonstrated in the The Wages of Fear in 1953. Typically for French cinema, Clouzot wasn’t making a fuss about it either; his work simply exists and Diabolique is a playful, devilish masterpiece of a thriller drenched in tension, with a cheeky propensity for teasing the audience. The viewer is both complicit in and a victim of the extraordinary narrative. There’s no evidence to say Hitchcock was actually jealous, but he had every reason to be. In retrospect, Psycho is the tighter, more daring film, but it was still second.
The setup of Diabolique is a simple one. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the overbearing headmaster of a boarding school and cruel husband to delicate, fragile Christina (Véra Clouzot) who plots his murder. She is encouraged by Michel’s icy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), who also suffers at his hand. The plot succeeds with disturbing, grisly efficiency and Michel’s body dumped in the school’s murky swimming pool. Then it disappears and the women are tormented by strange events, paranoid they will be discovered. The third act of the film has a supernatural air and Clouzot mischievously calls the viewer’s bluff more than once.
The first thing that strikes you about the story is the relationship between Michel and the women. It seems odd that both his wife and mistress would effectively live, never mind plot a murder together, especially as both Michel and Nicole are strong, confident characters in contrast with Christina. But it works and the three leads sell it well. Meurisse is a superb villain, his power over the women utterly convincing. Signoret’s Nicole is a tough role; she’s aloof, glamorous and confident and yet is nervous, in some ways as fragile as Christina. Véra Clouzot brings wit and nuance to what could be a one dimensional character, but as Christina, she is the film’s heart and emotional centre. The clever structure of the film ties her to the school; Michel’s disregard and arrogance toward the other staff and the children whom Christina desperately wishes to defend embodies how he treats her. The very building appears worn and tired, but full of thwarted potential, just as she is.
The pacing of the narrative is measured, steadily building tension. First in the daring literal execution via a bath (you might avoid your own for while after seeing this), then the clever and perfectly successful cover-up, only to be undone by the corpse disappearing. From there on, like a haunted house, Clouzot gleefully springs narrative traps to jangle the nerves of the two women and the audience to boot until the astonishing denouement, one of the most memorable in the thriller genre. There’s a wonderful message in the end-credits, asking viewers not to spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen it yet. It doesn’t matter how old this film is, it still deserves that respect.
Regardless of its legacy, Diabolique is absolutely Clouzot’s film. With a languid, almost mundane, focus on detail which so elegantly fits a story of the perfect murder; he peppers the mise-en-scène with grace notes that enrich every frame to add nuance to the story. Note in particular Christina’s nervous visit to a morgue. The screenplay too is witty and consistently disarming, full of memorable supporting characters like Nicole’s neighbours, a Columbo-esque detective or the child who gets in trouble for lying about what he claims to have seen. It has almost no music, but a score isn’t missed. Curiously, what music there is over the opening credits might remind you of Bernard Herrmann and it sets the tone perfectly within the first few seconds for how you’ll feel watching the rest of it.
Diabolique could very well be the best film Hitchcock never directed, but its style can also be seen in Pedro Almodóvar genre-defying The Skin I Live In, which bears a resemblance with Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face). That too, also, in part adapted by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac based on Jean Redon's novel; their influence on thriller cinema is therefore incalculable.
This is a very easy film to recommend, especially if you are more familiar with the risible remake starring Sharon Stone. Aside from being a quiet milestone that can change your perspective on cinema overall, Diabolique is a joy to watch. Is it odd to enjoy being so disturbed? If you agree it isn’t, you’re in Clouzot’s kind of audience.
Diabolique hasn’t been well-treated over the years. Criterion’s 4:3 mono transfer is not perfect, but it’s far better than any other, so the odd pop, scratch, shift and bloom is not remotely diverting and should be forgiven. Even embraced. Overall, the lighting is simply beautiful, bringing to life Clouzot’s astonishing mise-en-scène and depth of field. It accentuates a weathered environment, both literally in the drizzly roads or figuratively in the shabby, yet once opulent chintz of the school’s decor, which directly informs us of Christina’s throttled personality.
Introduction by Serge Bromberg - 15m
Discusses Clouzot as the French Hitchcock, and that it would not have been the Frenchman’s intention to be thought of as such.
Selected-Scene Commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway - 45m
Criterion have done several selected scene commentaries and they are arguably more effective than full length. Here Kelley Conway discusses three scenes and it is invaluable. She explains the origin of the original book (an anthology of crimes committed by women); the context of Clouzot’s work and his mise-en-scène; and the comparison with the novel, including the subtle implied sexuality between Christina and Nicole.
Interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman - 15m
In this piece from 2011, renowned critic Kim Newman explains the influence the film had on the genre, even so far as a Hammer poster using a play on words despite having no other relevance to the story. He also questions the impact on Hitchcock in some detail.