Diabolique (aka Les diaboliques) [Blu-Ray]
Director : Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay : Henri-Georges Clouzot & Jérôme Géronimi with René Masson & Frédéric Grendel (based on the novel Celle qui n'était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Stars : Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Véra Clouzot (Christina Delassalle), Paul Meurisse (Michel Delassalle), Charles Vanel (Alfred Fichet), Jean Brochard (Plantiveau), Pierre Larquey (M.Drain), Michel Serrault (M. Raymond), Thérèse Dorny (Mme. Herboux), Noël Roquevert (M. Herboux), Yves-Marie Maurin (Moinet), Georges Poujouly (Soudieu), Georges Chamarat (Dr. Loisy), Jacques Varennes (M. Bridoux), Robert Dalban (Le garagiste)
In an interview with writer, biographer, and forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, novelist Anne Rice described the horror movies she liked the best as “the ones that are heavily atmospheric, have some degree of elegance, and concern really tragic protagonists.” The movie she repeatedly returns to in discussing these qualities throughout the interview is James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), although she just as well could have discussed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (aka Les diaboliques), which is quite possibly one of the most influential horror-thrillers ever made. The story goes that Alfred Hitchcock had tried to get the rights to the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac on which Diabolique was based, and when he saw Clouzot’s film he was so jealous of the masterful way in which Clouzot worked over audience expectations that he went out and made both Vertigo (1958), which was based on another novel by Boileau and Narcejac, and Psycho (1960), which borrowed both the idea of a twist ending and the marketing ploys of not allowing people into the theater after the film had started and insisting that the audience not give the ending away to their friends.
The funny thing is that Clouzot was not necessarily setting out to make anything so influential. After winning the top prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival with The Wages of Fear, a nail-biting existential thriller about desperate men driving trucks of nitroglycerin across the rough South American terrain, Clouzot sought to make a “small” film. In her capsule review of Diabolique in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael quotes Clouzot as saying, “I only sought to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts--the child who hides her head under the bedcovers and begs, ‘Daddy, Daddy, frighten me,’” which Kael amusing follows by writing, “Perhaps the dear little thing didn’t know what a coldblooded daddy she had.”
Coldblooded is certainly an apt description for Diabolique, which set the bar high in terms of both its murderous, yet sympathetic characters and its tense scenario that mixes the conventional thriller elements of lust, jealousy, and homicide with the possibility of supernatural horror. Producer Val Lewton and French expatriate director Jacques Tourneur had already experimented with mixing the visual and thematic tropes of film noir with supernatural terrors in films such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), but Clouzot heightened it in terms of both narrative tension and the introduction of something that we now take for granted: the twist ending.
Diabolique takes place primary at a provincial French boarding school lorded over by the brutish headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse). His fragile wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) suffers from a heart condition, and even though she is the school’s headmistress and owner (due to her family’s money), she is mostly passive in bearing the brunt of Michel’s cruelty. Her only support and solace come from a fellow teacher, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), who is also Michel’s mistress (in a plot development that could only come out of a French film, Christina is openly aware that Nicole and her husband are lovers, although the sexual element was actually toned down from the novel, where the two women are also lovers). Both Christina and Nicole are so fed up with Michel’s physical and emotional abuse that they decide to murder him by luring him out the small village where Nicole lives, drugging him, and drowning him in the bathtub. Nicole, who is as confident and aggressive as Christina is mousy and reserved, is the driving force behind the plot, but it requires both of them to succeed (dead bodies are awfully heavy, after all). Their plan works, although not without a few tense moments of near revelation before they manage to dump Michel’s body in the school swimming pool, where they hope it will be found the next morning with conclusions being drawn that he got drunk and drowned.
However, the next morning the body is missing, and various things start happening to suggest that either (1) someone who knows what they were up to stole the body and is trying to blackmail them, (2) Michel was never really dead in the first place, or (3) Michel’s ghost is terrorizing them. None of the three possibilities offers much respite, and both women begin to crack under the strain of what they have done. Being the stronger of the two, Nicole is better at keeping her head and not panicking (at least not openly), but Christina, with her heavy conscience and weak heart, starts coming closer and closer to a complete breakdown. The bleakness of the film’s plot and its concomitant despairing view of humanity is lightened around the edges by the colorful supporting cast of characters, including the passively grumbling teachers at the school and a retired police detective played by Charles Vanel who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Michel’s disappearance, much to the chagrin of the increasingly paranoid women who murdered (or tried to murder) him.
Jaded viewers today might be adept enough at reading the clues to intuit what is going on, but most will be duly shocked by the film’s final images, which bring it fully into the realm of horror while also forcing you to go back and rethink everything you just saw. Viewers in the mid-1950s who hadn’t experienced decades of cinematic twist endings were stunned by the film’s eventual revelations, and Clouzot was witty and wise enough to end the film with an open request that viewers resist the urge to tell their friends what happens and hence ruin the experience. But, even if you do know what happens, Diabolique offers a host of dark pleasures, including the superb cinematography by Armand Thirard, which makes the French countryside seem like a haven for perversity and rottenness; Clouzot’s cool, assured direction that makes the contrived material feel so genuine and absorbing; and the performances by Signoret, Clouzot, and Meurisse, who form a particularly twisted love/hate triangle. While the burning question of “What happened to the body?” certainly keeps the film taut, it is watching the two women’s discordant reactions to the turn of events that makes it so intriguing. In a sense, Diabolique is really a character study, forcing its two sympathetic, but morally compromised protagonists beneath the cinematic microscope and watching them squirm and, possibly, collapse. Coldblooded, indeed. You can see why Hitch was so jealous.
|Diabolique Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Diabolique is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||French PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 17, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s Blu-Ray of Diabolique is a welcome replacement for their 1998 DVD, one of their earliest releases. For the transfer, Criterion has moved up a generation and taken the image directly from the original 35mm camera negative and then worked some digital magic via MTI’s DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. The result is probably the best the film has looked in decades, with a clean, nearly spotless image that maintains its natural grain structure and boasts excellent contrast and detail. The contrast and black levels are particularly impressive during the nighttime sequences (note Christina’s terrifying creep through the school hallways at the end of the film), while the detail is beautifully executed (note how you can virtually feel the stagnant slime on the pool water during the opening credits). The disc also includes a newly transferred lossless PCM monaural track, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally cleaned up. The track is smooth and generally free of aural artifacts and hiss, which allows the subtle sound effects (there is no extradiegetic music in the film) to do their work.|
|While the 1998 DVD was supplement-free, Criterion has rounded up some intriguing extras for the new Blu-Ray, starting with an informative selected-scene audio commentary by film scholar Kelley Conway, who teaches about French cinema at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to the commentary, we also have two new video interviews, one with Serge Bromberg, co-director of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno” (2009), a documentary about Clouzot’s legendary unfinished film from the mid-1960s, and one with film critic Kim Newman, a horror genre specialist who offers some fascinating insight into the film’s background and legacy. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, and the insert booklet contains a new essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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