Diabolique (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)



Diabolique suggests that French suspense director Henri-Georges Clouzot might have made a great surgeon; the movie is a grand exercise in giddy spectator torture, impossibly calculated but still provocative and cinematically energetic. Diabolique simultaneously suggests he would have been an awful surgeon, since it seems to display a complete and indiscriminate hatred of humanity as a whole. Outside of its bravura finale and the stunning murder sequence, it’s a more fun movie to think about than to watch. In fact watching it is rather oppressive — it sets up a stressful but mundane situation in the cavernous halls of its boarding school and then wrings horror from all of the details: tubs that drain too slowly, objects dropped in a pool, lights mysteriously turning in the late night hours.

The tale expressively —- but, again, almost mathematically —- told is of a pair of women (Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot) who conspire to murder the school principal (Paul Meurisse) who’s husband to one, illegitimate lover to the other, boss to both. The structure is extremely precise: there is the opening subtle exposition, the carrying out of the mission, then the excruciatingly tense midsection in which much concern is expressed about when and how the body will be found. Finally, the film sends us into perhaps the darkest abyss of knowingly impending death ever reached by anyone save Hitchcock, and for anyone who tells you that a thriller can’t shake you to the very core, this is required viewing. What’s most vital about it is not the story, but the images that represent it, and the degree to which implied madness in a character becomes nearly tangible madness in the viewer.

There’s more than one allusion in the movie to Chinese water torture, and by a certain point that’s what it feels like. About an hour in, you start to feel that the only reason the movie is 115 minutes and not 85 or so is that the director knew it would inflict misery to enlongate the disorientation and mystery. The only other movies to deal with life and death in a manner that feels this surreal without actually breaking with the world as we understand it are all Hitchcock’s: Rebecca, Psycho and especially Vertigo (which, not coincidentally, shares a source material author with this film). If ghosts were real, seeing them would be, I imagine, not unlike watching these films unfold.

Knowing the story’s potential, Hitchcock tried to get the film rights and was supposedly rather annoyed when he failed. But thank heavens we got Vertigo instead; that film carries an emotional power that Clouzot would find impossible to suggest or to handle. He wouldn’t be able to give humanity enough credit to put someone as complicated as Scotty on the screen. Hitchcock, meanwhile, probably wouldn’t have advocated the twist-driven structure of Diabolique and would have made serious changes to its plot to make it a film about, as he often put it, “suspense” rather than “surprise.” He would correctly have surmised, of course, that the layout of a movie like Diabolique radically alters it on repeat viewings, and its oneupmanship eventually does take a feel-bad toll on the viewer. Not that Vertigo is all fun in the sun, but the difference between it and Diabolique is that between romance and dread. Still, there’s no mistaking that many features of Diabolique would be expanded on and translated beautifully into Psycho five years later.

Even Psycho, for all its hopelessness, has a fairly sympathetic view of humanity; and this returns us to the absence of warmth in Clouzot’s films, especially Diabolique. He’s so determined to expose the evil in all of the inhabitants of his film (more so than in his delicious Le Corbeau, the entire premise of which hinges on people being total cads) that they come off as pawns in somebody’s bleak canvas to expose a relentlessly misanthropic worldview. Even extra background characters in the film are assholes. Even the guy who seems like a French Columbo is an intrusive, self-involved dick — and his presence seems like an unwelcome cop (no pun intended) to traditional mystery structure. Only Vera Clouzot’s Christina is excluded from all this, and even she is done in by her weak health in a way that seems vaguely to imply contempt of her by the film, but her kind face and vulnerability are in a way as haunting as any of the terrifying central elements of the story.

Despite its selling out to a few cheap solutions to its problems, Diabolique’s greatest revelations really come as the puzzle pieces are examined in retrospect and as the degree to which it’s completely a movie about the reality of movies becomes exposed. Characters constantly express the fear of being seen; the insanity, again, comes to match the audience’s as blacks and whites bleed together. And any questions are undercut by the fact that everything the marginal vessel Vera has seen in the film, we have seen. Trickery is nonexistent. Cheating is nonexistent. It’s all perfect, and our own world melds with the sour dead-end of the movie’s, with actors on the screen contemplating their loss of identity all while traps are being set around them. As in Clouzot’s previous film The Wages of Fear, they’ll all be destroyed by the director because that’s why he brought them here.

Like The Lady from Shanghai and Black Narcissus, Diabolique explodes at the finish line with a masterful climax that boosts it to some sort of greatness. But it’s a movie determined to trick, destroy, and madden its audience. Nothing more or less. And as cynical as it sounds, there’s a certain power to that. Certainly Diabolique seems close to some sort of demonstrative “ideal” of cinematic purity. It’s a triumphant model of cold, manipulative, taunting efficiency.

[Modified version of a review from 2006.]

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