Sunday, March 9, 2008

Target #199: Les Diaboliques (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

TSPDT placing: #485
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Pierre Boileau (novel), Thomas Narcejac (novel), Jérôme Géronimi, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Frédéric Grendel, René Masson
Starring: Véra Clouzot, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

For a brief period during the 1950s, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot temporarily swiped the title of "The Master of Suspense" from Alfred Hitchcock, owing to a string of well-received suspense thrillers, most notably The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). The latter was an adaptation of the novel "Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More)" by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; it was released in the UK as The Devils, and in the United States as Diabolique. Upon its initial release, the film was extensively likened to the work of Hitchcock {who, popular legend tells us, missed out on purchasing the novel rights by a mere few hours}, with its slow-burning, deliberately-paced suspense, and a shocking twist that I never for a moment saw coming. Though, with the notable exception of two scenes – both involving a murder, with only one of them being real – the film isn't particularly scary, the tension, the paranoia and the blackened shadows often become overwhelming, and Clouzot deftly toes the line between supernatural evil, and the evil that lurks within all of us.
Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at a boarding school for young boys, have a rather peculiar friendship. Christina is married to Michel (Paul Meurisse), a violent and tyrannical husband who derives pleasure from humiliating his pretty but physically-delicate wife. Nicole, conversely, is Michel's mistress, a proud and independent woman who knows how to take control of a situation. At one point in the film, upon witnessing the two woman quietly conversing, a fellow professor makes a fascinated remark: "I may be reactionary, but this is absolutely astounding - the legal wife consoling the mistress! No, no, and no!" The mere fact that Christina and Nicole have become close should already hint at a sinister situation underlying the surface, and, indeed, it is soon revealed that the two women plan to murder Michel and ridding themselves of his oppression. The "murder" itself – a sedative in the alcohol, and drowning their unconscious victim in the bathtub, is exceedingly disturbing, as we guiltily and uneasily ask ourselves if we'd have the courage to carry through such a scheme.

Alfred Hitchcock often delighted in creating suspense through the audience's subversive empathy for a film's villain, as a murderer attempts frantically to remove all traces of their crime. Clouzot uses a similar technique in his film, though, given the loathsome nature of the murder victim, our sympathy for the two women is almost demanded of us. However, the disappearance of Michel's body from the school swimming pool is completely unexpected, and either hints at a supernatural overtone, or that somebody else is quite obviously aware of their terrible crime. The paranoia from here rarely lets up, and we continually bombard ourselves with an endless stream of questions, unable to provide an answer for any of them. On a weaker note, despite the ever-present air of tension, few scenes actually succeeded in getting my heart pumping at a mile-a-minute, which was a slightly disappointing response that I can't quite explain. Perhaps a few sequences need to have been shortened slightly, just to swipe off ten unnecessary minutes, and allowing for a brisker pace that never gives you a chance to exhale.

Currently my #4 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
4) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
5) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)

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