50 years, 50 films Vol II: Les Diaboliques (1955)
We drift back towards the past with one of the spookiest of all murder stories.
You might not have guessed, when this series started, that it would end up featuring adaptations of two novels by Boileau-Narcejac (actually Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud). Then again, you might. After all, that French team was behind the books that became Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s timeless Les Diaboliques. Come to think of it, they also adapted Eyes Without A Face for Georges Franju. So they could have been all over this project.
It is said that Hitchcock, who had his eye on Les Diaboliques before Clouzot nabbed it, made the crew watch the French film during the shooting of Psycho. And there are certainly similarities of approach: an addiction to tension; willingness to delay satisfaction; a revelling in amorality. There is, however, a suffocating mustiness to Les Diaboliques that you didn’t see much in Hitchcock’s American films (though you may have smelt it in The Lodger or Frenzy). Clouzot’s thriller is set in the sort of ghastly fag-end school to which you would not banish even your least favourite nephew. We shan’t give anything much away as the film contains one of the most famous shocks in world cinema. Suffice to say it hangs around the relationship between a cruel schoolmaster (Paul Meurisse), his frail wife (Véra Clouzot) and his far from frail lover (Simone Signoret). Early on, the two woman form an unlikely partnership and begin plotting to do away with the man they share. He’s that ghastly, you see.
Let us say this. The plot is almost as ludicrous as that in Vertigo. Pull at any strand and the whole construction will unravel to nothing. Hitchcock himself was always unimpressed by viewers who spent their time picking holes in the narrative of his thrillers (or of anybody else’s). It was the film-maker’s job to distract attention from such trivial objections. Les Diaboliques demonstrates the strength of his argument. The film’s most famous scene is so audacious in its determination to weaken the floorboards beneath your unsteady step that it will not be until hours later (if ever) that you wonder at the absurdity of it all.
Even if the shocks and starts were not so striking, Les Diaboliques would deserve respect for its extraordinary accumulation of atmosphere. This is one of those films that can really start savage fights as to the definition of “horror”. Another is the aforementioned Psycho. I am of the pedantic opinion that, to qualify, a film must… Well, again I am in danger of saying too much. But there is not quite enough of the fantastic here to meet my criterion. Nonetheless, the creaking passageways, horribly discoveries and lurking shadows are certainly the stuff of horror. Véra Clouzot, who only made three films, all for her husband Georges, offers a hugely unnerving portrayal of a woman who finds terrors in the corner of every sink and the surface of every shelf. Certainly, for her, the world is every bit as terrifying as that in The Innocents or Rosemary’s Baby. Signoret, then at the height of her powers, is frightening in her determination. Meurisse is an ordinary sort of monster.
It helps that the film emerges in a slightly corrupted period for France and its cinema. There is a sense of torpor about that post-war uncertainty that really suits such a thoroughly rotten film. The age of Renoir and Carné was over. The New Wave was still some years off. Clouzot offered something of a challenge to the rising young turks. If we can draw an analogy with punk, he wasn’t exactly Iggy Pop, but he certainly wasn’t Rick Wakeman either. The films were well made in the classic form, but they weren’t the “cinema of quality” that Jean-Luc Godard derided in his angrier moments. Indeed, François Truffaut claimed he was faintly obsessed with the director’s Le Corbeau as a young man.
His career didn’t quite survive those upheavals. But his reputation did. Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear are among the most entertaining of all French films. They have inspired remakes of varying quality (Diabolique from 1996 is appalling; William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, a take on Wages of Fear, is now undergoing deserved rediscovery). Treats await those yet to see either original.
For 1955 we also considered Pather Panchali, Guys and Dolls, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Ladykillers, Ordet, Kiss Me Deadly, Rebel Without a Cause, Nuit et Brouillard and — most temptingly — The Night of the Hunter.