A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 12, 2016

Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Diabolique (or Les Diaboliques) was probably one of the first foreign language films I ever saw (although I'm sure I must have seen it in a version dubbed into English, as most U.S. releases were back then). The only thing I retained from it, I'm afraid, is the surprise ending. So I'm glad to say that it holds up after all these years, as any good thriller must even when you know its twists. I am, for the record, not one who is spoiled by "spoilers": I knew the gimmick in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) before I saw it, and I like to think I appreciated it more because I could see how it was being set up, and I enjoyed The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) more the second time I watched it. To my mind, any good thriller with a twist has to work independently of that twist, which Diabolique does. What it has going for it especially is Clouzot's superb control of atmosphere: sets (Léon Barsacq), music (Georges Van Parys), cinematography (Armand Thirard), and of course the performances of Véra Clouzot as Christina, Simone Signoret as Nicole, Paul Meurisse as Michel, Charles Vanel as Fichet, and a gallery of mildly grotesque supporting players, all working together to create a thoroughly sordid and unpleasant but also hypnotizing milieu. Even before the murder takes place, I was seriously creeped out by the shabby old school, its rowdy boys and ratty staff, and the sadism displayed by Michel toward his wife and mistress. That said, the story doesn't entirely hold together in any dispassionate post-viewing analysis. Without giving away any of the film's secrets, I spotted numerous loose threads. To name one, why is Christina so insistent on not divorcing Michel when she's perfectly willing to go along with a plot to murder him? We are expected to believe that she's a devout Catholic with religious scruples against divorce, but surely the church is at least as much against murdering your husband as it is against divorcing him. But I'm perfectly happy to ignore the implausible when the movie is as gripping as this one is.

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