Diabolique, 1954, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, Frédéric Grendel and René Masson, from the novel Celle qui n'était plus, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
It's extremely rare for a marketing department or critic to hail a film as the best ever made, or the funniest, or the saddest, or anything else, with one exception: movies are routinely marketed as the most frightening. What's more, there seems to be some consensus about what the most frightening movies were at any particular time; Nosferatu had the title for a long time, as did Psycho. These days, I've heard again and again that Audition is the most frightening film ever (I haven't seen it yet). I think people are able to make this distinction for horror films in a way they can't for comedies or dramas because a good horror film can keep you creeped out for days, in an involuntary and not necessarily pleasant way. This provides a relatively objective measure of how frightening the film was. Anyway, from 1954 to 1960, Diabolique was the undisputed champ.
For a modern viewer it's more of a thriller than a horror film; there's nothing particularly terrifying outside of the last ten minutes or so. But by modern standards of thrillers, it's exceptional. The plot is the star, more than the individual performances or direction or cinematography, so the plot is what I'd like to talk about most. However, the movie has a surprise or two in it, and Clouzot ended it with the following admonishment: "Don't be DEVILS! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw." So I'm not going to go into great detail about the second half of the film, which means this will be an incomplete review.
Paul Meurisse plays Michel Delasalle, the principal of a French boarding school with a relatively great life. He's got an attractive wife and an attractive mistress, he makes a comfortable living off his wife's fortune, and he keeps himself amused by bullying people around him. And because he works at a school, he's got plenty of targets. However, his wife and mistress are both less than amused and less than trustworthy. Here's the whole happy family:
L to R: Simone Signoret plays Nicole Horner, the mistress. She's wearing sunglasses because Michele gave her a black eye. Vera Clouzot (the director's wife) plays Christina Delasalle. And Michele is on the right, amusing himself at the women's expense.
As you might have anticipated from the still above, Nicole and Christina team up to exact a hilarious revenge on Michel. It's kind of like First Wives Club. Below is Michel after falling victim to one of their little pranks. See if you can spot the difference between the two stills:
That's right: in the second picture, his suit needs ironing. Also, he's been drowned in a bathtub. Not a pleasant end, but then Clouzot goes to extraordinary lengths to show the audience what a bastard this guy is. He beats his wife (who he affectionately calls "my little ruin"). He beats his mistress. He mistreats his employees. He buys rotten fish for schoolchildren (no, really!). If anybody ever had it coming, it's Michele.
So you're sympathetic to his wife and mistress; you want them to get away with this murder. They have a pretty good plan, too: they drug Michele, drown him in a bathtub while he's passed out, sneak him back into the school grounds and dump him in an unused swimming pool, where he disappears beneath the algae-covered surface. By the time he surfaces, everyone will assume he got drunk and drowned himself.
Except he doesn't surface. Days go by and the body doesn't turn up. Finally, they drain the pool, but the body is gone. As the murderesses begin to turn on each other, someone seems to be having a joke at their expense: Michele's suit is returned from the dry cleaners; someone has rented a room in his name. And that's before the supernatural stuff starts happening. I won't go into the plot in more detail here, but suffice it to say you'll find it more accessible and absorbing than most movies made today. I love Psycho, but I'm not sure it should have taken Diabolique's place in the pantheon of horror movies. Psycho will make you afraid of showers. Diabolique will make you afraid of water.
- The structure is different than it would be today. Michele is killed roughly an hour into the two hour movie, and the bulk of the time before that is spent establishing how truly awful he is. Today you wouldn't have to motivate the murder so well, and you'd want to get to the part of the story that everyone will remember (the missing body) in the first fifteen minutes if possible. I haven't seen the 1996 remake (with Sharon Stone in the Simone Signoret part), but I'd be willing to bet the murder happens much sooner.
- The last ten minutes of this movie have clearly influenced every horror movie that followed. Or at least every good horror movie that followed. When you're watching it, pay particular attention to the exceptional sound design.
- Hitchcock tried to buy the rights to this novel, but Clouzot beat him by a few hours. Boileau and Narcejac wrote their next novel specifically for Hitchcock; he filmed it as Vertigo.
- Robert McKee (author of Story and character in Adaptation) uses Diabolique as his prime example of image systems. An image system, for McKee, is a recurring set of related symbols that increase the viewer's emotional response to the film. In Diabolique, the recurring image is water (as you might imagine in a movie about drowning). The titles are over an extreme closeup of rain falling in a mud puddle, it's constantly raining, and we keep hearing rain, faucets, drains, liquid being poured; it's in every scene.
N.B.: I don't think image systems are particularly helpful at the screenplay stage of making a movie; they're more of a director thing. And they're something that script readers watch for now, so if you write a script that opens with a shot of a bird and doesn't have birds in lots of later scenes, you'll be accused of "establishing a false image system." Thanks, McKee!
That said, McKee is right about Diabolique. It's an extraordinarily wet movie. And it successfully associates water with decay and death, which is a reversal of its normal symbolic value. You can see the same value switch being tried in The Ring, down to the wet footprints from the end of this movie.
- The wife and mistress seem to have an exceptionally close relationship. One of them has short hair and wears a lot of business suits. The other has long hair, often braided in pigtails, and favors dresses of the "Dorothy in Oz" variety. I have no further comment on this. Pervert.