Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

If IMDB is right about anything (and let’s just say I’m a tad bit hesitant to trust anything IMDB says these days), Henri-Georges Clouzot beat out Alfred Hitchcock for the film rights to “Les Diaboliques” by a matter of hours.  If that is true, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least, because a story (and film for that matter) like this is right up Hitchcock’s alley.  If you want suspense, then there’s really few stories more conducive to that than the wife and the mistress of a cruel boarding school headmaster murdering him, dumping the body in the pool, only to discover that the body soon vanishes.

 I probably shouldn’tve just mentioned the whole thing about the body disappearing since it happens well into the movie and is a pretty big plot point and begins the spiral into paranoia for the two women, but every other review i’ve read makes light of it, so what the fuck.  And anyway, a movie like this isn’t really about plot points like that alone anyway, it’s about set-pieces, moments of suspense, and the mood created by events like the body’s disappearance and the obvious mental and physical deterioration of the man’s wife, Christina.   In that regard, all the comparisons that have been made of “Les Diaboliques” to Hitchcock are appropriate, because there’s so many elements used frequently by Hitch that make their presence felt here.  There’s the camera moving freely, almost never staying completely stationary as it shows you little clues that the director wants you to see.  There’s the humor interspersed with the dark subject matter where you’d almost never expect humor to be appropriate, like the neighbor complaining to his wife about how Nicole takes a bath so late while the actual murder is being committed a wall away, or the private detective whose scruffy appearance and almost gruff cheeriness I wouldn’t be surprised was a direct influence for Columbo.  All these you’ll see in almost any Hitchcock movie, but the one similarity between “Les Diaboliques” and the Hitchcock films that it so clearly influenced that I was most impressed with was the constant emphasis on suspense and build-up.  Hitch’s proverbial bomb under the table was ticking incessantly at points in “Les Diaboliques”, and a wonderful movie results.  So much of “Les Diaboliques” is build-up with almost no pay-off (other than the now VERY famous ending, obviously), and it couldn’t make me happier.  The step-by-step process of the two women killing the headmaster is so drawn out, from the faux argument between husband and wife about getting a divorce, slowly getting him to drink the sedative-laden wine, the sloooow process of him falling asleep, the slow process of getting him to the tub to drown him…I’d say the entire “murder” took about 15-20 minutes, and it was tense, unnerving, incredibly uncomfortable, and the very definition of suspense.  So many other things, like the women’s constant attention paid to the pool and what they think will be a soon-to-be-discovered body, or Christina’s increasingly worrisome heart condition due to events surrounding her husband’s “disappearance”, are drawn out to levels you wouldn’t expect, to the point that it’s not your typical mystery story, but a deep character study involving guilt over committing a crime, and how it’s not the body’s disappearance that you should focus on, but the effect of the disappearance on those involved.  The body’s clearly the Hitchcock-like Macguffin for something much bigger, and I don’t know if i’ve ever seen another movie that uses a fucking body as such an effective Macguffin (“Weekend at Bernie’s,” maybe? 😛 ).

If you’re anything resembling a cinephile, you know about the final scene of “Les Diaboliques.”  I had it ruined for me by Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, so I knew what to expect.  But when it came, I saw why it was indeed one of the scariest moments of all movies, because of what came before, because of the mystery of just what happened to the body, and most of all, what’s become of Christina’s deteriorated mental state.  Again, like most of what came before it, the key to the impact of this very famous shock ending is the lead-in to…well, obviously i won’t ruin it for the select few who don’t know about that one moment of absolute shock for both Christina and the audience, but it is the lead-up to the moment that makes it work.  A physically weakened (and likely near-death) Christina’s slow walk through the dark hallway with that one sliver of light through the far door, the sound of the headmaster’s typewriter going like crazy, even the way Christina is softly lit to emphasize her vulnerability in such a frightening place and situation…it all seemed incredibly expressionistic to me, like the silents of old.  And THEN she gets to that bathroom…and what she and we see is an image so surreal and horrifying compared to the pretty normal stuff we see prior in an almost languid pace.  A scene so suspenseful as Christina going to confront what we think might as well be a ghost needs a hell of a pay-off, and what she encounters in that bathroom is the perfect pay-off…so perfect that I can even forgive what seems to be a rushed and tacked-on “happy” resolution (another staple of Hitchcock’s that I wish didn’t become part of Clouzot’s repertoire 😦 ).  That famous ending is an incredibly powerful and frightening moment in time, made all the more effective by the drawn-out pace that came before.  It was a hell of a journey, and an absolute hell of a resolution, which is saying something when it loses none of its effectiveness when I know what happens going in 😀 .



1 comment so far

  1. Ally on

    awesome 🙂 I’m glad you liked it. This is pretty much a classic.

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