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Les Diaboliques (The Fiends)

November 11, 2008

Roger Ebert tells a story that involves the rather gruesome trinity of Alfred Hitchcock, his own film Psycho, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s murderously dark classic, Les Diaboliques. A man wrote to Hitch complaining about the notorious bathroom scenes in both movies: “Sir, after seeing Les Diaboliques, my daughter was afraid to take a bath. Now she has seen your Psycho and is afraid to take a shower. What should I do with her?” Hitchcock allegedly replied that the man should “send her to the dry cleaners.”

Hitch’s connection to this most famous of French thrillers doesn’t end there. It is said that he missed securing the rights to the novel on which the film is based (Celle qui n’était plus, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) by just a few hours, and, later, François Truffaut claimed that the authors, to even things up, then wrote D’Entre des Morts specifically for the fat man so that he might adapt it into Vertigo.

Such close encounters with the Hollywood master of suspense would for any other film, and any other director be flattering, but Les Diaboliques and Clouzot are perfectly capable of standing up for themselves. Clouzot, after all, had already established a fearsome reputation with the classic thriller The Wages of Fear two years earlier, a singular and unbeatable exercise in suspense that won the BAFTA, the Golden Bear, the Cannes Grand Prix, had Pauline Kael cooing over its existential power, and resulted in Sam Pekinpah nicking great chunks left right and centre for The Wild Bunch.

Les Diaboliques is set mostly in a dilapidated provincial boys’ boarding school run by sadistic penny-pinching headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), a man who makes everyone’s life there as unpleasant as possible. Mean spirited and violent, in one scene he serves everyone rotten fish, and makes his wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), swallow a mouthful in front of the assembled staff and children. Shortly after, when he has thrown everyone out, he forces himself on her. Christina is a submissive and seriously ill little thing who has handed over the running of the school – it really belongs to her – to her bully of a husband.

Not only that, but Michel has been running an open relationship with his mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher, for some time, although this now seems to be over. Nicole, as the film opens appears to hate Michel and has, it seems, already suggested a plan to Christina for killing the man they so tortuously seem to have shared. The two women will visit Nicole’s home village, and while there Christina will call Michel saying she is going to divorce him. This, they rightly believe, will force him to follow them, whereupon they will drug him, drown him in the bath, and then return to the school, dumping the body in the swimming pool so that he can be discovered, ostensibly seen as a suicide.

This takes us only a very brief way into the plot. Clouzot’s famous post-ending full-screen request that no-one goes and blabs the startling final twists isn’t compromised, for this is merely the set up for the main event. Once popped into the pool, Christina anxiously waits for the inevitable discovery of Michel’s prune-like corpse, but is soon horrified, when the pool cleaner arrives, to find that his body has vanished. Then, vague sightings and reports of him begin to feed back to her. The ice-cool Nicole does her best to calm her, but this is the meat of the film, and it is terrifically well developed and executed.

If all of this sounds rather black and horrific, it is: Clouzot was determinedly miserabilist in his approach, and here it works a treat. Les Diaboliques is slavishly dedicated to developing a sense of rottenness at the heart of its action with stylistic flourishes everywhere. Each set piece is constructed perfectly in and around the mise-en-scène of the movie’s visual style. Check out the moth-eaten appearance of the decor, the awful rotten food, the seedy seen-better-days teachers on the staff, the considered and unsentimental depiction of Christina’s abuse at the hands of her odious husband. The framing of the three main characters is distinct and pointed, too, with Christina forever forming the apex of a long triangle, separated from Michel and Nicole at the base. Dainty and beautiful, but almost unbearably delicate, Véra Clouzot’s performance is the nervy nerve centre of the film, all wide-eyed fear, guilt and suspicion, she suffers, like Hitchcock’s heroines, wonderfully, spiritually and physically helpless and apart. Signoret, on the other hand, epitomises French cool throughout and is clipped, neat, controlled and smart. It makes Christina’s plight all the more desperate.

The startling climax remains, more than fifty years later, a wonderful moment, and for the first-time viewer it is a brilliantly bewildering and exciting ending. Alas, it is an iconic moment that is almost criminally undermined by a final 90 seconds of wordy exposition which may leave most modern audiences bemused and, possibly, amused. And that would be a terrible shame, because in almost every aspect Les Diaboliques works as a fantastic piece of cinematic art. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a seminal work; hugely influential since its release, it continues to provide a basis for every ménage à trois thriller, every creaky-door horror movie, and every woman in distress dark house scream fest.

When Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani signed up for the ill-advised remake, Diabolique, more than a decade ago, the irony was that they had in their own ways (Stone in Basic Instinct, Adjani in L’été Meurtrier) already made much more respectable swipes at the same story, or at least elements therein. You may not have seen Clouzot’s wonderful thriller, but you’ll have seen copies, homages, steals and imitations. This is the blueprint.

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