Diabolique (1955)

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Synopsis: Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) used to have the same problem: they were in love with the same man. Now they have a different problem: they both loathe the same man. With Christina as his sickly wife and Nicole as his strong-willed mistress, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) uses physical force to keep both women under his thumb. Finally, Nicole proposes the only remaining solution to Christina: they should murder Delassalle. Christina reluctantly and fearfully goes through with the plan, and they dump the body in the swimming pool. But when the pool is drained the next day, the body is nowhere to be found. Soon, eerie signs of Delassalle start popping up everywhere, from the suit he died in coming back from the cleaners to a foggy visage of his face appearing in the background of a photograph. Could the evil man possibly have survived their foolproof plan – or is he tormenting them from beyond the grave?

I went into this film knowing only two things about it: 1. It starred Simone Signoret, who I’ve wanted to see more of ever since her captivating performance in Ship of Fools (1965). 2. It was part of the Criterion Collection expiring from Netflix Instant on July 22, presumably to move over to Hulu Plus, where Criterion is cloistering away all its best films, never again to be seen by me (in streaming form, anyway). I’m so glad I got to see this film before it escaped my grasp. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1955 under the original French title Les diaboliques (The Devils), something about Diabolique makes it feel older than its 56 years. In its use of black and white, its noirish nuances, it definitely feels more ’40s than ’50s, especially when you compare it to the sprawling Cinemascope epics being produced in the United States around the same time. This is, of course, in no way a jab at the film, merely an observation. Who needs blaring Technicolor and sweeping landscapes when you’ve got a perfectly spooky little French ghost story to draw you in?

Nicole supporting the “little ruin” (as Delassalle calls her) Christina.

The performances thoroughly drive this film, and I really adored that (for the most part) the focus was on the two women who had once been rivals but now banded together to murder the arrogant man who abused them both. Véra Clouzot, who only ever appeared in three films – all of them directed by her husband, Henri-Georges Clouzot – gives a sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of the pious and vulnerable Christina. She has a delicate beauty that captivates the eye, and I couldn’t help seeing a slight resemblance to Greta Garbo in her features. Signoret is the strong one, the driving force, who acts both as director and protectress of the sickly Christina. She is amazingly confident and thorough in her plotting of Delassalle’s murder, and while she may seem “diabolic,” you support her because her malice is for a good cause. Paul Meurisse as Delassalle is so perfectly wretched, so arrogant and nasty, that you want the women’s plan to succeed. He also seems like the type of strong and violent personality who wouldn’t even let death stop him from making the lives of his murderesses miserable.

How much is that ghosty in the window?

It turns out it was quite fortunate that I didn’t bother to read up on this film before watching it, because then the stellar ending wasn’t spoiled for me. I didn’t see it coming at all and only figured out the “twist” about five seconds before it was revealed. DON’T spoil this movie for yourself, because believe me, you’ll enjoy it so much more if you don’t know what’s coming. It’s a beautifully executed piece of cinema magic, Hitchcockian in its intricacies, but also wholly, undeniable French. Still, the suspense leading up to that climactic scene was a bit too subtle for my tastes. I suppose the point was to be eerie rather than full-on scary, but I couldn’t help wanting something with a little more oomph to really ratchet up the tension. This is definitely more of a mystery which utilizes bits and pieces from the thriller and horror genres to keep it going; I guess I just wanted a little more outright horror, at least in the supernatural sense. Still, it’s a gorgeously subtle and spooky film with some lovely performances by its lead actresses. Get a hold of it while you can; don’t let the mystery haunt you until it’s too late.


Diabolique (1955) – 4/5 stars

10 Comments

  1. Great review, Caroline! You got DIABOLIQUE’s sensitivity across as well as its suspense. Like Stanley Donen’s 1963 thriller CHARADE, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE plays like one of the best Hitchcock films that Hitchcock never made! But then, CHARADE recalls playful, polished, soignée Hitchcock films such as NORTH BY NORTHWEST, while DIABOLIQUE, based on the novel by Boileau & Narcejac of VERTIGO fame, is more like a precursor of Hitch’s darker, more sinister PSYCHO. Even DIABOLIQUE’S opening credit sequence immediately makes us uneasy with its merciless close-up of the run-down DeLassalle Boarding School’s murky, mossy swimming pool, accompanied by children shrilly singing Georges Van Parys’s music off-key and off-screen.

    Don’t you love the way the tension tightens like a noose (helped by skillful use of shadows and light)? DIABOLIQUE gives new meaning to the phrase “cruel to be kind.” I’ve always thought Vera Clouzot’s delicate loveliness and anxious air played beautifully off Signoret’s sexy, smoldering intensity. As a Hitchcock fan, I’m hard-pressed to decide which is scarier, DIABOLIQUE’s bathtub scene, or PSYCHO’s shower scene(s). Speaking of PSYCHO, did you know Clouzot grabbed the rights to DIABOLIQUE out from under Hitchcock’s nose? As a result, Hitch made darn sure he nabbed the rights to VERTIGO before it was too late. It would have been interesting to see how DIABOLIQUE would have come out in Hitchcock’s hands; still sinister, no doubt, but probably with more touches of impish humor. Ah, but would DIABOLIQUE then have sacrificed some of the poignant sensitivity that helped make this film such a classic? Only time will tell, I guess. Anyway, Caroline, *BRAVA* to you on your terrific post!

    • I thought Vera Clouzot and Signoret made a really enchanting pair and played off each other beautifully. I suppose, like Charade, this could be called one of the best Hitchcock films that Hitchcock never made, but I really do think Clouzot’s own touches make it, as you say, subtle and poignant, and therefore different from what Hitchcock may have done with it. Clouzot’s own mastery with this film shouldn’t be understated.

  2. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, but I do recall it as eerily spooky (and, yes, it is very French, particularly in the partnership of the 2 women who normally would be rivals). The ending’s a great shocker, but the epilogue is also odd and unsettling, also suggesting the supernatural. You make a good point of how the film seems more 40s than 50s in its style; but there’s a sophistication about it that is most continental. Signoret stood out for me–that kind of mother-earth sexiness of hers. I really enjoyed your excellent post.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Signoret is incredibly captivating; I definitely need to track down more of her work.

  3. dunyazad

     /  July 19, 2011

    Funny you should mention Hitchcock. Hitchcock was livid that he couldn’t get the rights to Diabolique so he commissioned its authors, Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, to write something for him. The resulting film was Vertigo. So we have Diabolique to thank for Vertigo. Narcejac and Bioleau also wrote Eyes Without a Face. I’m kind of a fan.

    • Whoops. Didn’t realize I was signed into WordPress. I’m dunyazad. I normally don’t reply under that name. Sheesh….

    • I can definitely see the parallels between Diabolique and Vertigo; how interesting that we have two different directors working with similar stories by the same authors! Thanks for your insight, Christianne.

  4. Rick29

     /  July 27, 2011

    Fine review of an influential classic. The first English-language remake (well, sorta a remake) was called GAMES and starred Simone again. If you haven’t seen it, I also recommend Clouzot’s WAGES OF FEAR. It’s very different, but quite suspenseful once it gets going. (It was also remade as an English-language pic, SORCERER).

    • Diabolique definitely piqued my interest in seeing more of both Signoret and Clouzot. Thanks a lot for your recommendations, Rick!

  5. Cristiane

     /  August 5, 2011

    If you want to see the performance that really made Signoret a star, check out Casque d’or (1952). (She had made some other movies before, including La ronde (1950), but this made her name.) She’s almost unbelievable beautiful in it. For a later performance, try to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s absolute masterpiece, Army of Shadows (1969).

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