Les Diaboliques (1955)

Véra Clouzot and Simeone Signoret plot murder in twisty thriller Les Diaboliques

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Cast: Simeone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Véra Clouzot (Christina Delassalle), Paul Meurisse (Michel Delassalle), Charles Vanel (Alfred Fichet), Jean Brochard (Plantivaeu), Pierre Larquery (Drain), Michel Serrault (Raymond)

Clouzot is one of those fine directors, less prominent today in the list of the great artists of cinema. This might be because, unlike some of his contemporaries, many of his films were unashamed thrillers, Hitchcockian suspense tales, rather than the serious, artistic films we associate with French cinema. Les Diaboliques is the most popular of these films, a part mystery, part horror drama which slowly builds a confusingly terrifying picture of murder, danger and betrayal.

Christina (Véra Clouzot) is the wife of Paul (Michel Delassalle), a sadistic, bullying nightmare of a man. Together they run a boarding school, set up by her inheritance, but their marriage is a disaster. Paul is openly conducting an affair with fellow teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret). Nicole, however, is as disgusted and contemptuous of Paul as Christina – and she eventually persuades her that they should consider ridding themselves of Paul, with a temptingly simple scheme. However, things swiftly go against their plans…

Les Diaboliques is a compelling psychological thriller cum horror story, a creepy slow-burn of suggestion and paranoia that unfolds a bizarre whodunit mystery, which unnerves and constantly leaves you guessing. The story unfolds at a measured, inexorable pace. Clouzot’s camera is a quiet and carefully placed observer, taking in the events that occur in this hellishly cruel school with a calm directness, a cool minimalism that lets them speak for themselves.

And it’s a pretty hellish school. Paul is a brutal tyrant and bully, the teachers and students alternating between fear and loathing for him. He treats his fragile wife (struggling with a heart condition that could end her life at any moment) with a casual disregard and cruelty. Poor Christina is so put-upon and crushed, she seems wearily accepting of her husband’s constant affairs intermixed with cruelty. Even his mistress (an imperiously cold, harshly determined Simeone Signoret) can’t stand him. The whole school seems to have felt the effect of Paul’s personality – its run down, crushed, disheartened. The other teachers are either disinterested, faintly criminal or both. Is it any wonder wife and mistress want to murder him?

The murder, when it comes (and it’s the best part of half way through the movie) is almost blandly low-key. Clouzot even partly intercuts it with next-door neighbours complaining about the hot water being run late at night, the sound disturbing their radio quiz – unaware that it’s filling the bath so the two women can drown a drugged Paul. The flat where the crime occurs is as low-key and shabby as most of the rest of the film’s locations. 

Fascinatingly, what emerges increasingly are the lesbian undertones to the relationship between Nicole and Christina. Their intimacy is a major part of the build-up to the murder – their conspiratorial closeness seems as much as a careful seduction of Christina by Nicole as it is two like-minded souls coming together (this feeling, by the way, really comes into play as the film reach its conclusion). As events spiral out of control, Nicole becomes more and more of a protective, husbandly figure over the fragile Christina (an intriguing performance of vulnerability from Clouzot’s wife Véra), their physical and emotional closeness making them feel more and more like lovers dispatching a husband, rather than allies of convenience. It’s an intriguing subtext to the film, that I feel will make it of more and more interest as time goes on.

Events certainly do spiral out of control, as the body carefully placed in the swimming pool by the murderers (hoping to give the impression that Paul has accidentally drowned) is never discovered. Is it in the pool at all? Is Paul dead? Or has someone taken the body? A string of increasingly unnerving deliveries and visitations occurs – is Paul somehow speaking from the dead? Or are forces unknown manipulating the killers to disaster? Clouzot lets these events slowly build, avoiding the temptation to sprinkle clues or – more importantly – to give the audience more clues than the characters. We are only ever shown what Christine and Nicole see and only get the information they get.

This is where the film introduces its fourth primary character, retired detective Alfred Fichet. Fichet’s ambling, scruffy, seeming absent-mindedness makes him an eerily accurate forerunner of Colombo (at one point he all but says “just one more thing”). He rolls from place to place, clearly much sharper than he appears – it’s an impressively charismatic performance from Charles Vanel. He manages to work out what has happened (or perhaps what is happening) before the end – but moves too slowly in order to prevent disaster. But he changes the dynamic of the film in an intriguing way – shaking the film up 2/3rds of the way in, a tribute to the invention of its writing.

The final reveal of the plot is tinged with a horrifying terror – shot with an intense, watery fear that is guaranteed to haunt the memory. To say more is to reveal too much of an excellent act four twist. But it’s a sequence that you will find hard to shake from your mind – and one that you later realise the whole film was building towards. It’s what has led many people to call this film partly a horror story.

Clouzot’s film is a fine twisty thriller, even if at times it feels a little too in love with the mechanics of its tricks and plot mechanisms than it is with emotion and character. But it creates some intriguing and effective characters (including some small cameos) and it feels like a film that genuinely teaches us about the casual cruelty and selfishness that drives so many of our actions. There are many, many lies told in the film – even the children at the school casually lie – this is not a film that has a high opinion of the human race. 

Les Diaboliques has been called the greatest Hitchcock film Hitch never made. Hitch might well have brought a bit more flash and punch in its style (Clouzot is not the most inventive user of the camera here, with most shots very safe). But I’m not sure he could have improved its sense of creeping inevitability and grim claustrophobia. It still packs an inventive, clever and intriguing punch even today.

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