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?
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.
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