Diabolique: Criterion Collection
May 26, 2011
Diabolique (1955) was director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s seventh film and saw him at the apex of his critical and commercial success in France. It was the second part of a cinematic one-two punch that included The Wages of Fear (1953) and established him as an important filmmaker not just in his native country but in the rest of the world as well. Based on the French crime novel Cell qui n’etait plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Alfred Hitchcock no less was one of the film’s greatest admirers and he reportedly screened it for the writers of both Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).
The opening credits play over footage of murky water in an unused swimming pool. It is a key location that will be important later on and also acts as a metaphor for the nature of the film – characters with questionable motives and where nothing is what it seems. Boarding school teacher Christina Delassalle (Clouzot) is married to Michel (Meurisse), the cruel headmaster who, when he’s not belittling his wife, is mean to the students. She is friends with her husband’s mistress and fellow teacher Nicole Horner (Signoret), a lady so cool she wears her sunglasses at night. Michel is a real piece of work – he married Christina for her money. She resolves herself to a life of mental and physical abuse.
The two women take off for the weekend and Nicole uses it as an opportunity to convince the meek Christina to call her husband and tell him she’s leaving him. Naturally, this doesn’t go over well with him and he heads out there to meet them. Nicole has had enough and with Christina they plan Michel’s demise. But of course things don’t go entirely as planned and Clouzot introduces all kinds of ingenious plot twists that keep us guessing as to what will happen next.
The three lead actors are excellent – Vera Clouzot as the mousy wife, Simone Signoret as the cool, calculated mistress, and Paul Meurisse as the sadistic husband. It’s fascinating to watch their characters bounce off each other in this taut, psychological thriller. With Diabolique, Clouzot meticulously crafted a claustrophobic thriller that exposed some of the worst aspects of humanity. It demonstrates that there is no such thing as the perfect murder because things like emotion and bad judgment get in the way. The bottom line is if you’re going to kill someone you have to really go for it and cover your tracks so that no one can trace it back to you.
“Serge Bromberg Introduction” features the film preservationist and historian talking about Clouzot and giving us a brief overview of his career, which he does to put Diabolique in context. Bromberg touches upon the film’s literary origins while also analyzing its look and themes.
There is a selected-scene commentary by French film scholar Kelley Conway. She analyzes specific scenes and dissects their meaning. She touches upon his life and career and how they relate to the film. Conway speaks eloquently and knowledgably about Diabolique.
Film critic Kim Newman talks about how Diabolique influenced films like Psycho. He cites it as being the first film built around a twist ending and calls it a “conspiracy story.” He analyzes the meticulous structure of the plot and how this harkens back to mystery novels.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.