LES DIABOLIQUES (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954)

We change in many ways over time, and sometimes a film with which we are familiar strikes us very differently than it once did. I recall a time when I didn’t much like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s celebrated thriller Les diaboliques (Diabolique, in the U.S.; more accurately, Fiends in Great Britain). Eventually, I gave it a grudging respect but found the film cold, manipulative, tricky. It scared the heck out of me—the film still does—but it seemed to be wanting of some humanity. The older I get, the more this impression fades. A profound meditation on the impact of mortal awareness on the human condition, Les diaboliques now moves me more than it chills me. It’s a trenchant, haunting film.

Clouzot’s history prior to making the film—he was in his late forties at the time—is troubled. Plagued by poor health since childhood, Clouzot was unable to pursue the naval career he wanted. Instead, he studied law and politics as preparation for entering the diplomatic service. His first job, as secretary to a politician, disappointed, motivating another career change; now he would be a scenarist. His scriptwriting, however, was interrupted by a tubercular condition that forced him into a sanatorium for four years, during which time he read voraciously. In 1938, he resumed his career, and he made his first feature film—he had made short films even before his confinement—in 1941. At this time the French film industry was officially in the hands of the Nazis, who were occupying much of France. Finding the provincial suspiciousness and other elements in his second film, the classic poison-pen melodrama Le corbeau (1943), demoralizing, the Nazis halted his career; the French themselves had their own misgivings, suspecting Clouzot of having collaborated with the Germans. Thus the interruption of his work continued even after the Liberation. In 1947, officially exonerated but under a lingering cloud of political suspicion, he returned to filmmaking. Soon after, respect and acclaim finally arrived: the best director prize at Venice for Quai des Orfèvres (1947), the top prize at Venice for Manon (1948), his adaptation of L’Abbé Antoine-François Prévost’s novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, and the top prize at Cannes for his masterpiece, Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), a viscerally exciting, existential and fatalistic adventure addressing the dire human consequences of an American oil business’s exploitative intrusion into a South American town. A principal member of the cast would take on an even larger role in Les diaboliques: Clouzot’s Brazilian-born wife, Véra Clouzot.

Clouzot’s most famous film internationally, Les diaboliques is one of a handful of works—others are The Wages of Fear, Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956) and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)—that generated the “art-house” crowd of U.S. movie patrons during the Eisenhower years.

Written by Clouzot and his Wages collaborator, Jérôme Géronimi, the script is based on the novel La femme qui n’était pas by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who would also write the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock based his Vertigo (1958). Yet, because of its reputation as a shudder-fest with suggestions of Grand Guignol theater, the Hitchcock film that Les diaboliques is more often identified as anticipating is Psycho (1960). Actually, I do not recall a single drop of blood in Clouzot’s film, but psychological human torture abounds. (Petit Guignol then?) Clouzot’s realization of his and Géronimi’s script, however, achieves a far more humane and poetic result than all this suggests.

The setting is a provincial boarding school for boys. The owner is a former Brazilian heiress; running the school is Christina’s husband, Michel Delasalle. Michel has apparently only recently ended an extramarital affair with one of the teachers, Nicole; matter-of-factly Christina and Nicole discuss how they both despise Michel, who openly abuses Christina both verbally and at times physically. Christina, devout, will not divorce Michel, nor will her pride allow her to abandon the school that her money largely keeps afloat. Nicole convinces her that they should murder Michel, during school vacation, in a complicated plan that will conceal their guilt. They drug Michel, drown him in a tub of water, and dispose of the corpse. Back at school, a student explains that the headmaster has ordered his punishment; other signs point to Michel’s having returned from the dead, being impossibly alive and taunting the homicidal co-conspirators. Garbicz and Klinowski have written (humorously, one hopes), “the person who reveals the totally unexpected final twist to someone who has not seen the film deserves a fate worse than murder,” and indeed the film itself closes by entreating the audience not to disclose the now-famous resolution. (The ads for Psycho would revive this kind of plea.) Regrettably, one can’t seriously discuss a film while withholding so significant a plot detail. It turns out that Michel and Nicole, lovers still, have concocted the whole scheme of feigning Michel’s murder in order to frighten to death Christina, who has a heart condition; that way they may stay together and take over the school. Their plan succeeds—up to a point; Christina has a fatal heart attack when Michel’s corpse rises from Christina’s bathtub and removes his pupil-less eyeballs. Inspector Fichet, who has been investigating Michel’s disappearance, arrives not quite in the nick of time and arrests the pair of culprits.

The briskness of Fichet’s appearance at the end, at night, and his failure to prevent Christina’s death have led some, including Roger Ebert, to find fault here. Christina dies only to generate a horrific scene, because in reality Fichet should have interceded sooner in order to prevent this crime. Nonsense. Fichet’s a-little-late intercession proves him an (unwitting) executor of justice. Christina, after all, was perfectly willing to kill her spouse; whether she actually did so, she certainly believed she had helped commit the murder, as her pathetic attempts to pass all blame onto Nicole expose. Nicole professes atheism; it is the devout Catholic Christina, who believes in Hell, who violates her religious principles in order to kill. Thus she reveals the vileness of her breeding and wealthy station; the public act of divorce would lead to her being excommunicated from her Church, but, on the other hand, if she can get away with secret murder . . . . The scene of Christina’s heart attack, gruesome and enormously painful to watch, represents the “just desserts” of a criminal’s mental guilt. The ending’s moral correctness has been somewhat obscured, though, by the fate of the actress playing her: Véra Clouzot herself died of a heart attack shortly after, in 1960.

One might accuse Clouzot of extreme callousness were it not for the fact that, at least on one level, Christina’s miserable health is a projection of his own. Clouzot even more than she may have felt guilty for “crimes” he, like her, did not commit but considered, during the war, in order to prevail in his chosen umpteenth profession. In his case, the guilt initially assigned to him by his countrymen, because tied up with issues of his decency and patriotism, may have induced a moroseness that his poor health exacerbated. Certainly no sensitive commentator has missed the degree to which seediness and decay describe the boarding school in Les diaboliques, both in terms of its atmosphere and objective reality. One suspects Michel of badly mismanaging the school’s finances, if not of outright embezzlement, since the input of his wife’s money seems to do little to help the school, which is somewhat in disrepair, and where fish no longer fresh is served at dinner. All this contributes to a portrait of the teaching staff as professional misfits, people who would prefer happier lives doing something else elsewhere, and their fear of and contempt for Michel are evident. They are indeed marginal individuals, poorly paid and in no way extended esteem or often, even, courtesy; Michel publicly begrudges a faculty member a second glass of wine at dinner! Finally, the teachers’ acute sense of their disadvantaged socioeconomic status is exacerbated by the wealthy background of many of their students. For the adults, the school is a repository of their failure, weakness, disgrace; this is even true for Christina, who, despite her financial resources and elitist background, is treated like dirt by her spouse—and all the more so now that he is setting up his plot against her with Nicole.

Indeed, much of the film’s elastic poignancy derives from the contrast and collision between the spirited, rambunctious and, in some cases, ripely pubescent boys and their worn, somewhat dissipated school masters, those on the verge of life’s possibilities and those rather past such possibilities. It was Truffaut who said that one shouldn’t make a film about children without loving them and without using the camera to express that love. Children are cherished in Les diaboliques—at least boys are—to the same extent that they are not, are in fact schematized, in René Clément’s Jeux Inderdits (Forbidden Games, 1952); their behavioral richness, glimpsed and gleaned by an almost documentary camera, in the midst of such a frankly contrived murder plot involving some of their elders contributes to a heartrending metaphor for this contrast, if you will, between the purely living and, in effect, the living dead. It is against this human backdrop of time waiting and time having passed that the visible rejuvenation that Michel and Nicole briefly experience when they embrace and kiss just after Christina’s horrible death discharges its emotional power. This is a film about those whose “second chance” at love and life is measured against all the activity, vibrancy and potential of the young. In a way, this “second chance” is like a “second wind” whose labored quality discloses the mortal awareness freighting it.

Another contributor to this pervasive sense in the film of mature humanity’s mortal self-awareness is the poetry of evanescence that Clouzot seamlessly weaves into an otherwise sturdily presented film. A motor vehicle’s tire disturbing while passing through a puddle; the reflection of passing trees on the windshield of another vehicle; the sheer playful energy of boys as they make their way down a hall; Michel’s ambiguous photographic image—is it there or not?—in an upstairs window overlooking the school grounds: these and like touches accumulate almost into a reverie of life implicitly projected by those who only dimly recall life. Assisting Clouzot in this and all other aspects of his vision is his superb black-and-white cinematographer, Armand Thirard, whose poetic airiness in the country in Julien Duvivier’s Poil de Carôtte (1932) resonates beautifully in filmgoing memory.

Finally, the boy who insists he has seen Michel after the latter is presumably absent and then as ardently insists he has seen, alive, Christina after we know she has died of a heart attack is not, as I once thought, a coy, crude and clever trick. The boy is not lying at all; rather, he is bodying forth a degree of possibility, even supernatural possibility, that existence at the dead-end of life is no longer privy to. In this and other contexts, one must note at least in passing the symbolic weight of Christina’s name; sacrificial and redemptive for Michel and Nicole, Christina stores a bit of magic for the schoolboy whose vision of her “risen” is a deeply touching chord on which to close the film. Goodness knows, the emotional depth of this film is something that eluded me for decades.

The acting is superb. The children are wonderful, wonderful. Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret, as Michel and Nicole, rightly take precedence over Véra Clouzot’s Christina, but not once do any of the three strike a false note—a considerable achievement given the trickiness of the plot. Signoret in particular shines, and at no time more so than when Nicole, seated, still tenuously connected to the possibility of younger days, using her shoes and feet and not her hands, takes off her shoes and flexes her stocking feet, the camera startlingly dipping to catch this instance of fleeting relief from the world’s weariness. The tactful way that Nicole manipulates Christina’s unconscious sexual attraction to her constitutes another front on which Signoret’s acting delights. Finally, Charles Vanel—Javert to Harry Baur’s Jean Valjean in Raymond Bernard’s Les misérables (1934), and Jo, the fish out of water, the mobster panic-stricken in an alien milieu, in The Wages of Fear—is sly, wry and just a bit wicked as Inspector Fitchet, the character that inspired Peter Falk’s Columbo on U.S. TV.

Les diaboliques won the Prix Louis Delluc as 1954’s best film in France and, in the U.S., the New York Film Critics Circle award as 1955’s best foreign-language film—the latter a judgment that surely wouldn’t hold today in light of the fact that The Wages of Fear was released earlier in New York City that same year.

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