Les Diaboliques is the film that Alfred Hitchcock missed out on making after getting pipped to the post by another master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot. If the story is true, Clouzot stayed up all night reading the original novel, Celle qui n’était plus, and then called writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac the next morning, desperate to have the rights. By the time Hitchcock rang a few hours later those rights were no longer available.
Hitchcock did not walk away entirely empty handed. Boileau and Narcejac went on to write D’Entre les Morts for him, which he turned into Vertigo, currently ranked at number one in the Sight & Sound 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll. Boileau and Narcejac also wrote the adaptation of Eyes without a Face for Georges Franju, so clearly between 1955 and 1960 all their guns were firing.
Les Diaboliques is the story of two female teachers – wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, wife of the director) and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) – who decide that the best way to deal with Michel (Paul Meurisse), the bullying brute of a husband/lover who is also their boss at their school, is to kill him. The film isn’t so much about the killing, which comes fairly early on, but about dealing with the body and the psychological effect the murder has on the two women.
Complicating things slightly in Boileau and Narcejac’s original story was the fact that girlish, pigtailed Christina (Clouzot) and worldly, coiffed Nicole (Signoret) were also lovers. That’s gone in the adaptation, though a hint of a relationship is hinted at. It adds transgressive spice but HG Clouzot isn’t really interested in that side of things. Instead, Hitchcock style, he’s keener on tormenting his characters, and by extension the audience, as Michel, a bastard while alive, proves to be even more of a problem when dead. Spiriting his body away from the scene of the crime isn’t easy. Then it somehow disappears entirely. Then suggestions start to emerge that Michel isn’t really dead at all, even though we’ve seen the man drugged, drowned overnight in a bathtub and then deposited for several days at the murky bottom of the school’s swimming pool.
There is a shock reveal at the end, which won’t shock modern audiences because it’s been borrowed and re-borrowed so many times since, but at the time it was considered so crucial to the enjoyment of the film that there’s an entreaty to the audiences in the closing credits asking them not to be “devils” (“diaboliques” in French) and ruin the film for people who hadn’t seen it.
The plot is great fun but actually much of the enjoyment comes from HG Clouzot’s control of his actors and the gothic mis en scene. There’s no music. The school where much of the action is set is austere in the extreme, and populated with shady characters, and regular Clouzot DP Armand Thirard underlights it the entire way through, so that in one dark room after another the women’s faces, lit ghoulishly from below, loom out of the murk, first as scheming conspirators, later as guilt-ridden sinners.
It’s all very Catholic, emphasised by the arrival of Commissaire Fichet, a retired policeman dressed in dark clothes like a cleric, who has a Columbo style faux naive approach to detective work, as much father confessor as cop on the case.
Much of the burden of the acting falls on Véra Clouzot, who only made three films, all of which were directed by her husband, and though he’s obviously instructed his DP to light her as flatteringly as can be managed, Véra needs no following wind and comes up with the goods as the trembling, religiously-minded soul who’s having second thoughts now the deed is done. Signoret, as the tough-nut mastermind, takes great care not to stand in Mme Clouzot’s light. She can do this sort of thing in her sleep, and in several different languages.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021