Genre: Mystery | Thriller
Director: Henri-George Clouzot
Stars: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
I begin this review with a disclaimer of sorts. This is a foreign film. This film is subtitled. Some people tend to shy away from subtitled films, claiming that it’s too difficult to read subtitles and pay attention to the action on the screen at the same time.
Well, suck it up my fellow cinephiles. By restricting your movie choices to only English language films you are denying yourself some amazing, cinematic experiences. You will find that very rarely will I ever recommend a dubbed version. Even if you don’t understand the language the actors are speaking, the subtle nuances in their inflection and delivery are based on emotions that are universally understood. With a dubbed version you miss out on part of the original intention of the film. So give subtitles a chance. As with anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets. And now back to your regularly scheduled review.
Les Diaboliques (translated as either The Devils or The Fiends) is a film based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s reported that when director Henri-George Clouzot bought the film rights to the novel, he beat out Alfred Hitchcock by just a matter of hours. I am a huge fan of Hitchcock’s films; so when I tell you that Les Diaboliques belongs in the pantheon of films from the Master of Suspense himself, it is indeed the highest of praise.
The story takes place at a substandard boarding school for boys run by its domineering principal, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse). Michel is married to one of the school’s teachers, Christina (Véra Clouzot), while openly carrying on an affair with another teacher, Nicole (Simone Signoret). He rules both his wife and his mistress with the same tyrannical fist reserved for his students, employing flagrant displays of cruelty and humiliation. Bonded by Michel’s abusive mistreatment, the two women form an unlikely alliance. They devise a plan and eventually carry out Michel’s murder, dumping his body in the deep end of the school’s neglected pool. Everything seems to go off without a hitch, until the pool is drained and they discover Michel’s body is missing.
Les Diaboliques does an exceptional job of defining its characters. The frail and timid Christina, Michel’s deeply religious, jilted wife, is perfectly balanced by the domineering and head-strong mistress, Nicole, who must frequently take charge to ensure their murderous plot is brought to fruition. Our femme fatales’ victim, Michel is the embodiment of brutality. In one scene in the school’s dining hall, Michel forces a sick Christina to eat a meal of spoiled fish in front of her colleagues and students. Her anguish and humiliation is so apparent, that later when Christina suffers from doubt and hesitates in carrying out Michel’s murder, you’re practically yelling at the screen, “Kill the son-of-a-bitch!”
This film is fairly tame by today’s standards, but that doesn’t make it any less suspenseful. In its day, the film’s ending was considered one of the most shocking to date. It even had one of the earliest forms of a “spoiler warning” by means of a message at the end of the film that implored its viewers not to ruin the ending for their friends by asking, “Don’t tell them what you saw.” How cool is that? I just picture French women of the 1950’s exclaiming, “Mon dieu!” and passing out in the theatre isles. I must admit that the first time I watched this film, alone in the darkness of night when the film reached its gripping climax I did pull my blanket a bit tighter.
Les Diaboliques (more frequently found in the U.S. under the title Diabolique, and definitely not to be confused with the 1996 American remake of the same name) is a flawless analysis of suspense. The film has appeared on many “Best of” lists, including Time Magazine’s Top 25 Horror films (although I’m not quite sure I agree with the horror classification), and stands firmly in my top 20 films of all time. So the next time you’re presented with a rainy day and a couple of hours to spare, check out Les Diaboliques. Vous serez peut-être surpris, mais vous ne serez sûrement pas déçus. You may be surprised, but you won’t be disappointed.
I’m including the official trailer, however it’s a bit ambiguous and certainly does not do the film justice.