Thursday, July 7, 2011

Classic Throwback: Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Before Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (both 1960) came the 1955 masterpiece of thrills and suspense, Les Diaboliques, from acclaimed French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is based on the novel, She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and is said to have inspired Psycho after Cluzot snatched the rights to the screenplay from Hitchcock himself. It is the story of two women, the fragile wife and the strong-willed mistress of a tyrannical headmaster of a boy's boarding school, who devise a daring revenge plot on the physically and emotionally abusive man.

It is a film, in the tradition of Hitchcock, that builds it suspense quite slowly. It opens in the second-rate boarding school, and we witness several sequences which reveals the menacing and sadistic behaviour of the school's principal Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) towards his frail wife, the school's owner, Christine (Vera Clouzot). Delassalle also flaunts his relationship with Nicole Horner (Simon Signoret), another teacher at the school. Though they could be divided by antagonism and jealousy, the women are presented as being quite close, primarily based on their mutual hatred for the man. Unable to take the abuse any longer, Nicole conspires to kill Michel, and the initially reluctant Christina agrees to assist her.

Using a threatened divorce to lure Michel to Nicole's apartment in a remote village hundreds of kilometres away, Christina drugs a bottle of whisky and sedates him. The two women then drown him in the bathtub, drive him back to the school and then covertly dump him in the moss-infested swimming pool. Along the way, the body, hidden in a wicker basket, is nearly discovered a number of times. When the body of Michel fails to surface, foiling their plans of making it appear to be an accidental death, mysterious things start to happen that challenge the sanity of the women. It deliberately takes the time to develop each of the characters, and the opposing ways in which the women feel about the murder. Christina, though she hates her husband, feels she is incapable of such an act, and her nerves nearly crumble on several occasions afterwards. Nicole is much more cold-hearted, and keeps them together. Both deliver great performances.

I actually found it a little difficult to get absorbed into. I have heard a great deal about Clouzot, and his direction here is impeccable. The length of this film is certainly not long (111 minutes I believe) but it does require some dedicated attention to become immersed in the story, which turns into a genuinely compelling thriller in the second half. The concluding sequences, which play with eerie shadowing and sound effects, are astounding. While it obviously shares similarities with Hitchcock's best works, and many modern suspense thrillers, Les Diaboliques is famous because it was one of the first to challenge the audience with tension and twists of this nature. The copy I watched was not of great quality, a feature I am sure would be enhanced by the remastered Criterion release. I don't want to say too much more because it is a film that is best appreciated when you know as little about it as possible, but I urge you to check it out.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)

1 comment:

  1. A shame you didn't get to watch it on the new Criterion transfer. It just might have changed your score to a 5...