Diabolique, a film by by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Criterion Collection (1955)

A number of weeks back I highlighted a fantastic film from 1953, The Wages of Fear, by the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Great as that film is, and it is absolutely great, I was unprepared for the heights that Clouzot was able to attain with his classic 1955 film, Les Diaboliques (released as Diabolique in the United States).

Starring Simone Signoret as Nicole Horner, Véra Clouzot as Christina Delassalle and Paul Meurisse as the dastardly Michel Delassalle, Diabolique is a classic of the suspense/thriller/horror genre and is considered one of the greatest films of the 1950’s.  The film inspired Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psychoand is certainly Hitchcockian in many ways — but make no mistake, this is Clouzot in top form and Diabolique is as great as Hitchcock’s top films, and as enjoyable. The film is based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose D’entre les morts was adapted into Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

Christina Delassalle, kind and frail, owns a boarding school which is run by her despotic and cruel husband Michel Delassalle.  Michel’s mistress, Nicole Horner, is a teacher at the school. Michel treats Nicole quite poorly also. Though Christina and everyone else knows that Nicole is Michel’s mistress, this does not stop Christina and Nicole from having a seemingly close relationship based on the commonality of their abuse by Michel.

Nicole talks an initially reluctant Christina into a plot to kill Michel. Nicole plans a perfect murder, that if pulled off, would rid them of their hated Michel while making his death appear accidental, since otherwise all suspicion would naturally fall onto them. Late at night, they lure Michel to a remote village, where they sedate him and drown him in the bathtub. Still that night, they bring his body back to the school, dumping it into the murky swimming pool on the property. It will look like Michel got drunk, falling into the pool and drowning. A couple days go by, yet the body never surfaces. When the pool is drained, his body is not there.

A private detective named Alfred Fichet (played by Charles Vanel) is looking into Michel’s disappearance. Meanwhile, a young boy at the school claims to have seen Michel, and what appears to be an image of Michel shows up in the background of a school photo. Christina is extremely distraught and ill and, late one evening, tells the detective everything. He does not believe her, or better put, seems to have a different theory.

{Ed Note: If you have not seen this film before and intend to watch it, do not read the next paragraph, as the following summary will spoil the film for you. Suspense depends on lack of knowledge of what is going to happen — so again, watch the film and stop reading this!  Note that the trailer is included at the end of this article.}

Late at night, hearing some noises, Christina wanders the school. As the suspense builds, Christina, extremely scared, runs back to her room only to find Michel’s body in the bathtub of her room! When he starts to rise, she falls, dying of a heart attack. It turns out that Nicole and Michel planned the entire thing, faking his death so to get rid of Christina. Just as it seems that they got away with the perfect murder, the detective shows up to arrest them. In a final interesting twist, the same boy that claimed to see Michel when everyone thought him dead, claims to have just seen Christina, at which point the film ends.

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{Ed. Note: Safe to read from here on out again!}

Diabolique worked for me at all levels. Intellectually smart, nicely paced, with a setting of oppressive tension and top-notch acting, the film is simply enjoyable to watch with not a dull moment. Clouzot weaves the drab environment and the darkness of the plot into a masterpiece of realistic suspense. While the The Wages of Fear is the deeper film, Diabolique is the more guilty pleasure. Together, they are the pinnacle of Clouzot’s work.

In a case of life imitating art, unfortunately Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack at age 46. Just as in her performance in The Wages of Fear, Ms. Clouzot is fantastic. Beautiful, but extremely weak and impressionable, she plays Christina’s role with a vulnerability and innocence that contrasts wonderfully with the strength and wise to the world persona of Nicole played so well by Simone Signoret. Paul Meurisse plays an excellent villain; abusive, cruel and cold, fully deserving of the plot against him. The eeriness that seems to emanate from him works perfectly in this film, contributing immensely to the suspense.

I highly recommend this film, you will enjoy it. It gets repetitive to throw out superlatives on Criterion Collection, but as always this is the version to watch as the transfer is meticulous. For Hulu Plus subscribers, the Criterion version is available for your watching at your convenience.

Diablique Criterion Collection Cover

About the Criterion Collection Edition

  • 117 minutes
  • Black and White, 1.33:1, French
  • New digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
  • Selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway
  • New video introduction by Serge Bromberg, codirector of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno”
  • New video interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty

Here is the trailer for the film:

 

2 thoughts on “Diabolique, a film by by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Criterion Collection (1955)

  1. As you say, a hugely entertaining film, and very influential (the remake in the late 1990s isn’t worth mentioning except to show the staying power of the original). Vera Clouzot’s career was tragically short, and it’s interesting that Clouzot never achieved such success as with the two films in which she starred.

    An interesting bit of trivia: Vera Clouzot’s father was Brazil’s Gilberto Amado, a writer and politician who shot and killed fellow writer Hannibal Theophilus at the opening ceremony of The Society of Brazilian Men of Letters. Theophilus had criticized writers and poets who Amado admired. Despite the fact that there were dozens of witnesses, Amado was acquitted (being a critic in Brazil can be a dangerous profession) and strangely enough later served as President of the UN’s National Law Committee.

  2. I saw this film when it was first released. Truly a suspensful thriller. I thought it was better than Psycho.

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