4. Les Diaboliques (1955),
directed by Henri-George Clouzot

4. Les Diaboliques (1955),
directed by Henri-George Clouzot

A French Psychological Thriller That Dabbles with Film Noir Still Has Some Tricks Up Its Sleeve


Les Diaboliques is chilling, enticing and – as with any thriller that builds towards a twist ending – deliriously silly. It wreaks psychological havoc on its heroine, causes us to question everything we see and, quite impressively, still manages a genuine fright scene here and there in the process.

Rating: 9/11


The age of SPOILER ALERTS has altered not only how we watch and approach content, but how content is made and marketed to us. We’re all so concerned with not knowing how something ends before we watch it that every narrative is reduced to being defined by its ending. Which is insane. We recently reviewed the historical fiction novel Wolf Hall, and I can tell you that not a bit of its splendour is diminished by already knowing the ins and outs of Henry VIII’s reign. However, there’s obviously a reason spoiler fear exists: some stories, no matter their other virtues, derive most of their power from their surprise endings.

These sorts of films depend on their big reveals to ultimately succeed, in both solving their central mysteries and deceiving the audience. Much as (and, yes, here I will employ a legitimate SPOILER WARNING) Bruce Willis is really a ghost the whole time in The Sixth Sense and Verbal Kint turns out to be Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, the French thriller Les Diaboliques offers up a juicy twist in order to explain itself. It shows us a plot to commit murder, follows through on it and then removes the body to confound us. There are hints of a supernatural presence, as well as a suggestion that these characters might just be mad. But, as is often the case, the simplest explanation is usually the right one, as it turns out that… well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

At any rate, this is how Les Diaboliques unfurls: Christina (the waifish Véra Clouzot) owns a rundown boarding school in Paris, which she operates with her abusive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse, deviously cruel). They openly despise one another, as does Nicole (a shrewd, calculating Simone Signoret), one of the teachers that Michel regularly forces himself upon. In order to rid themselves of Michel, Christina and Nicole conspire to drug him and drown him in a bathtub, later dumping his body in the school’s swimming pool. However, before it can be discovered and ruled an accidental death, Michel’s body disappears completely, distressing them both greatly.

You’ll be shocked to hear that this doesn’t work out great. (Cinédis)

As the days pass, teachers and students at the boarding school become concerned about Michel’s whereabouts. A grumbly retired detective happens to hear of his disappearance and starts to make inquiries, much to the ladies’ dismay. Meanwhile, the suit Michel was wearing on the night of his death arrives at the school, dry cleaned and courtesy of a gentleman who fits Michel’s description. And here’s where we find ourselves wondering about Christina and Nicole’s sanity, or about the possibility that this hard boiled murder-mystery might suddenly become a ghost story.

Our openness to this second option is very much to the film’s credit, mostly because it never seems to be asking us to believe something ridiculous. Yes, it’s an inherently silly notion that Michel is taunting these two women from beyond the grave for murdering him, but their inability to provide an alternative explanation makes their situation more compelling. And, without putting too fine a point on it, director Henri-George Clouzot always maintains the stance that Christina and Nicole could simply be in the grips of a shared psychosis.

The film noir aesthetic that informs the movie pairs nicely this with this idea. Characters are dressed in colours or styles that shape their frame of mind, all dark or all white, buttoned up or largely uncovered. Shadows, that intractable noir feature, are deployed as one might use music to heighten a scene’s significance or underline its import. Sometimes they cover everything but the character’s face; sometimes, the face is all that they cover. Often, the darkness that surrounds the characters conveys less about their lack of virtue and more about the uncertainty of the world around them. Whatever wrongs they may have committed, it’s out of their hands and beyond their understanding now.

There’s also something to be said for the choice to base the film in a boarding school, of all places. Beyonding lending a welcome specificity to proceedings, setting so much of the action against the backdrop of a learning facility riddled with children provides a point of comparison between the actions of the adults and the kids.

In several scenes, children are punished for actions deemed inappropriate by the teachers, whether that be graffitiing a wall or smashing a window. The kids run around and gossip about the adults, but they also have the consideration to behave themselves when they see Christina is having a hard time. There’s not necessarily a direct alignment between the morality of the children and the grown-ups, but it’s interesting watching determinations of right and wrong being enforced by people whose actions run so counter to those very notions, especially when the children themselves seem to have their own idea of decorum.

Anyway, when the surprise ending arrives in Les Diaboliques, it’s a doozy: as it turns out, Michel was never really drowned at all. He and Nicole faked his death in an attempt to drive Christina mad with guilt and, when that didn’t work, began the process of giving her a scare-induced heart attack. Michel finally manages this by appearing in Christina’s bathtub as a corpse – complete with fake glazed-over eyeballs – and slowly standing, looking for all the world like a zombie out for revenge.

Mother of God, that is upsetting. (Cinédis)

I know, crazy, right? Like, literally, that’s a fucking stupidly crazy idea. But, again, there’s something sublime in the way that it all comes together, how perfectly it explains everything despite how bathsit that explanation is. If nothing else, it’s a superb exercise in misdirection, however implausible it may be. And yet, it’s also the tumultuous thrill of that last scene, which is nothing short of astounding. Seeing an apparently undead Michel rise out of the bathtub, watching Christina succumb to a heart attack, having Nicole rush in to embrace Michel and expound on their cunning plot and then, at the last second, having the retired police detective emerge from the shadows, catching them red-handed. No doubt, it is an insane few minutes, but what else could possibly resolve all that has come before? It’s an earned absurdity, one that manages to be equally foolish, tragic and irrepressibly fun to watch unfold.

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