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Diabolique (1955)
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by MP Bartley

"No wonder Alfred loved it."
5 stars

Perhaps it's urban myth, but the story goes that Hitchcock was just hours behind Henri Georges Clouzot in buying the rights to the novel that would become the film Diabolique (Les Diaboliques across Europe). Hitchcock was then apparently so impressed with the final results that he was freshly inspired to make something as clever, chilling and startling - the resulting film being Psycho.

The most striking comparison to be made between the two, (and many other of Hitchcock's films, particularly Frenzy) is that the two directors clearly share a love of the blackly comic and the absurdity of murder. Set in a French boarding school for boys, Clouzot's protagonists, who he moves around like ants underneath a curious schoolboy's magnifying glass are the brutal headmaster Delasalle (Paul Merisse), his wife, Christina (Vera Clouzot) and mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). He makes no attempt to hide the two from each other, and indeed, enjoys playing the two off each other in manipulative mind games. This, however, has the effect of forcing the two of them into a team who plan to bump off Delasalle and then dump his body in the school lake - a plan complicated by the disappearance of his body after the deed is done...

If that sounds like spoiling the plot, it really isn't, because another commonality with Hitchcock that Clouzot shares is his strong belief that all a film needs is one or two main events, and the confidence to mine every ounce out of drama out of them. Clouzot paces the film with a deceptively leisurely pace; it takes its time, but it's never slow, as there's always a deep and urgent drama just needling away at the characters beneath the surface. But just as Hitchcock's best films never found much interest in the interference of governments or huge organisations in his protagonist's plans (no, a ring stubbornly stuck in a corpse's clenched hand or a misplaced key were much more interesting obstacles to overcome), Clouzot doesn't place much stock in having the full power of the law bear down on the two women. Instead, the threats to their plans come from nosy neighbours angered by their noisy bathtub when the murder is being committed, or a drunken soldier insistent on getting a ride with them when a corpse is rapidly cooling in the back. What's striking is just how comically Clouzot plays these scenes, whilst never letting them puncture the tension. Instead, it all adds up to an intoxicating and choking rope of pressure that slowly tightens around the two women until it's dizzyingly ripe with tension.

The two women are a wonderfully portrayed odd couple, Christina a timid mouse of a woman, whilst Nicole is more of a beaten dog, but with enough energy left in her for one last bite and snap at her owner. They're hugely sympathetic, which adds to the film's charm - you like them so much you want them to get away with it thus making us as complicit as they are (another tick Hitchcock would borrow for Psycho), but Clouzot's taut direction is so clever you need to see how their charade will fall to pieces - and contrasts superbly to Merisse's performance. An arrogant and callous brute, striking fear into everyone from his pupils to other male teachers, he's clearly someone comfortable with bullying both physical and mental - a scene where he forces Christina to swallow mouthful after mouthful of bad fish is not just physically disgusting, but has an enormously disturbing subtext to it - and it gives his comeuppance a grim humour to it.

Clouzot delights in playing cat and mouse with the characters and the audience, tipping the balance of power one way and then the other. The boarding school is a ghostly, crumbling wreck, damp with autumn rain, with muddy puddles cannily foreshadowing Delasalle's fate and he probes into every creepy nook and cranny of it, as the murder plan unravels alongside Christina's barely-contained hysteria.

And then there's the ending. Maybe you know it, maybe you don't. Even if you do, it's still magnificently effective and strikes the perfect balance between horror and humour - I can only imagine Hitch sitting in the dark of his private cinema, chuckling away at the audacity of Clouzot, and that includes one last line of dialogue designed to make you go, "Ooh..."

A funny, thrilling, creepy delight from start to finish, Diabolique also demonstrates the difference between genius and hackery. It inspired Hitchcock to make at least one more masterpiece, whilst it later inspired lazy and unimaginative studio executives to churn out a Sharon Stone remake in the 1990s. Predictably enough, it was cough*diabolical*cough.

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originally posted: 08/29/10 19:39:37
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User Comments

8/30/10 Ronald Holst Well it is far from the worst movie I have ever seen but not that close to the best either 4 stars
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