November 11, 2017
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
There are two murderers in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955). One, Christina (Véra Clouzot), is a petite mouse with Pippi Longstocking pigtails tied together and neatly placed atop the nape of her neck. The other, Nicole (Simone Signoret), is a cool blonde with a penchant for horn-rimmed sunglasses and smart trench coats — she’s a French, acid-tongued Marilyn Monroe with a slight wear. Seemingly, the women have nothing in common. But dig deeper and it turns out they have plenty: both are trapped in unhealthy relationships with Michel (Paul Meurisse), a brutish schoolmaster (Christina’s his wife, Nicole his mistress), both rely on each other for survival, and both are eventually responsible for Michel’s murder. Or so it seems.
Les Diaboliques, which makes for a tonal precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), has three plots. First is the planning and inevitable undertaking of this pivotal murder, which is staged so brilliantly it will either look like an accident or a suicide to investigators. (Christina and Nicole lure Michel to Nicole’s secluded apartment, drug him, and drown him in the bathtub.) Second is a development that throws the apparent perfection of the crime’s execution off: the body, thrown in a thickly algaed-pool that hasn’t been cleaned for months, disappears. And clever Detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) seems to know exactly what’s going on. Third, and most convoluted, is the truth that all is most certainly not what it seems.
But this succession of plots builds into one of cinema’s great thrillers, a ripely entertaining tale of suspense that, as the previously mentioned master of suspense so feverishly set out to do at his peak, plays the audience like a piano. The few criticisms of Les Diaboliques, ranging from the way its phenomenally frightening conclusion is pretty implausible to the way it arguably enjoys its own sadistic tendencies, are all valid. But the various shitted-upon characteristics are also part of the fun.
Gloriously tricky and finger-lickingly macabre, it does exactly what a good thriller should: call the sweating of bullets to arms, test our intellect, and, ultimately, satisfactorily terrorize us. Move to the edge of our seats we do. Some might even fall out of their chairs. Time might’ve changed Les Diaboliques’, as well as Clouzot’s, current legacy, though. The latter’s said to have only beat Hitchcock to purchasing the rights of the novel from which the movie’s based, Celle qui n’etait plus by Boileau-Narcejac, by just a few hours. Though imagining what Hitchcock might have done with the material is tempting — undoubtedly he could have made one of his most persisting features — we’re pleased that the rights ended up in Clouzot’s hands. Paired with the filmmaker’s previous feature, 1953’s The Wages of Fear, it helps conclude a one-two punch solidifying the director’s explosive, if short lived, impact on the French film industry as well as the cinematic zeitgeist of the '50s holistically.
Surprisingly, no one involved would ever quite recreate their top-notch work in Les Diaboliques. Clouzot would never again make a movie so universally beloved or influential. His wife, the lead, would die (ironically) of a heart attack just five years later. Signoret’s hard-edged sex appeal would harden simply into a hard edge. Vanel, so astounding as the detective (he’s a precursor to Peter Falk’s Columbo), would remain a dependable character actor but would not quite capitalize on his scene-stealing abilities.
The film, then, captures a specific, beautiful moment in time. It could not have been made anywhere other than France, could not have been released any other year besides 1955, could not star any other actors (and could not spotlight these actors during different moments in their respective careers), and could not have been made by anyone other than Clouzot. (Except maybe Hitchcock.) It’s unmissable, both because it’s a masterpiece of its genre and because Psycho made you scared of taking showers so you might as well be scared of taking baths, too. A