Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 12 September 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews: Quai Des Orfèvres
Dank, stagnant water fills the screen as the credits roll in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique. The film’s reputation is entangled in film lore, mainly concerning Alfred Hitchcock’s losing bid for the film rights to Pierre Boileua and Thomas Narcejac’s source novel, C’elle qui n’etait plus, by a matter of hours, only to reconfirm his status as the master of fright with 1960’s Psycho (Hitchcock would eventually purchase the rights to another novel by the French authors, D’entre les Morts, as the source material for Vertigo). Aside from the implied rivalry between Hitchcock and Clouzot, this image of water forges a connection between the two films. While Psycho gained notoriety with the shower sequence, and surely overshadows Clouzot’s French predecessor, Diabolique utilizes water foremost for its own gruesome murder scene, but brings it back again, and yet again, until the screen practically reeks from it.
The film’s French title Les Diaboliques commonly translates to “The Devils,” a playful choice considering the sound of a children’s chorus piping over the opening credits. Set in an all boys’ boarding school, the scene is ripe for childish havoc, and there are light moments involving the students and their pranks. The devilish behavior belongs to the adults however, and it is apparent through sadistic headmaster Michel the place has gone to pot. Michel serves both the students and faculty spoiled fish and cheap wine, insults his colleagues, and abuses his delicate and wealthy wife Christina (Clouzot’s own wife, Vera) in every way imaginable, including an obvious affair with a teacher, Nicole. The school is a hellish site; aside from the rotten lunches is the filthy pool, with moss growing along the surface, and a student body and faculty that walk on eggshells around their headmaster. Vengeance lurks under the surface however, as we learn of a plot devised by Nicole and Christina to rid themselves — and the student body — of Michel.
It is the set up and subsequent murder that occupies the first third of the film, and the relationship between both women is exposited beautifully: Nicole, blonde and voluptuous, is the propelling force, both physically and mentally stronger than Christina, who is not only petite but ailed by a heart condition, and identified clearly as an outsider for her Spanish heritage. The ladies lure Michel to a small town under the premise of divorce, drug him and drown him in a bathtub by pinning him down with a heavy statue. The camera lingers on the body weighted beneath the water, and later on the water stains that leak through the trunk housing it as Nicole and Christina make their way back to the school. The women dump Michel’s body into the pool and plan to wait for it to float back to the surface. And so they wait… and continue to wait. And it is here that Christina’s Catholic guilt turns to paranoia and terror as the pool is drained and absent the corpse disposed in it.
The film centers on Christina, who, in the tradition of the female leads in Gaslight, Suspicion, and Rosemary’s Baby, may or may not be going mad. Clouzot cleverly establishes our identification with her, not only through this question of the missing body, but initially through camerawork and scrupulous character development. Michel’s abuse of Christina is rooted in condescension; he treats her as a child, cruelly calling her his “precious little ruin,” and mocks her devotion to the well being of the students. In a particularly vile moment he forces her to swallow the rotten fish being served for dinner, speaking to her as though she were a disobedient child, and threatening the entire student body if she does not visibly finish her food. The camera frames her from above in several shots, with both Michel and Nicole looking down on her, forcing her into a figurative yet tangible submission. Unable to take action against her husband on her own, she has formed this bond with Nicole, seemingly genuine and sisterly, until Nicole verbally abuses her in an already familiar tone, leaving us to wonder what motivates her decision to join forces with Christina.
Clouzot’s film feels more wretched and grimy than Hitchcock’s work at the time, although the plot twists have a familiar feel: Michel’s suit mysteriously appears via the dry cleaner, and he appears to be registered at a hotel in town, although never seen by the staff. Then a student claims that the headmaster has returned and disciplined him, much to Christina’s horror and increasing alarm. Left alone at the boarding house by Nicole, she hears bumps in the night—the poor woman finds herself in an eerie and quite atmospheric encounter with flickering lights, an invisible typist, and a corpse that won’t stay dead. The sound design for this sequence remains hair-raising, silent save for the rattle of typewriter keys, footsteps, creaky door hinges, water dripping and the increasing frequency of Christina’s screams.
Effectively, even timelessly horrific, Diabolique retains even more strength in its examination of rotten relationships and female paranoia. The sadomasochistic triangle between husband, wife, and lover is synonymous with their surroundings of decay and fetid water, an intricate feat for the director, and yet Clouzot remains the more anonymous figure in the company of Hitchcock.