French director Henri-Georges Clouzot was probably the one director that could compete on equal footing with the great Alfred Hitchcock. And while not as prolific, Les Diaboliques – “The Devils”, although it is universally distributed under the original French title – not only ranks as good as Hitch’s best, but in some ways even surpasses the master.
Right from the start we are confronted by the strange trinity between the headmaster of the Delassalle boarding school for boys, his wife and his mistress, both teachers there. Headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) openly both seduces and torments his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), while at the same time she befriends and consoles his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot). Christina, weak and ashen-faced and who actually owns the school is constantly bullied, dehumanized and degraded by Michel in front of everyone. As the school enters into a three day weekend holiday, Nicole convinces Christina to help her with a plan to murder Michel. Christina wavers, as she desperately wants to divorce Michel, yet is held back by her religious convictions. Meticulously planned and with deceptively crafted alibis in place, the women execute their scheme in which the last step is to place the body in the stagnant swimming pool at the school and then wait for someone to stumble across the remains.
They wait out for the anticipated discovery with ever increasing nerves until they all but order the emptying of the pool, only to be shocked that no body is to be found. But subtle clues and a body washed up on a nearby shore have the women scrambling. As they mount excuses and lies to cover their search for the body Christina is approached by a retired Police detective to help her find her ‘missing’ husband. In a truly an unforgettable ending, the truth is more shocking than anything viewers can anticipate and fitting the diabolical title.
What make this film so great is the sustained tension, from beginning to end and so thick you can cut it with a knife. Christina (and sadly Véra herself in real life ) is further strained by a heart condition throughout the ordeal of the murder and the following turmoil. What we believe are just minute artistic nuances in the filming end up being perfectly fitting the character motivations that support the twist ending. Even then, with the very last scene after the big ‘reveal’, we are left with a sense that once again there is just a little be more to the story.
If that weren’t enough, the shot compositions are magnificently framed and there are plenty of subtle subtext devices throughout. I honestly want to watch it again now that I know the outcome. It is both an art film and a film that can be enjoyed by the masses. Filmmaking at it’s finest. I’m now looking forward to someday finding The Wages of Fear, another Clouzot film held in high regard.
My Criterion DVD contained excellent extra features that provided a background on both the director and the film itself which I highly recommend. The only bad news is that those features implied that Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a film I already stated I was looking forward to, is essentially retelling of the Diabolique plot.
Les Diaboliques? C’est Magnifique!