on 29 November 2001
Les Diaboliques is an unsettling and beautifully-paced study of betrayal, mistrust and guilt. Set in a decaying boarding school, it shows the grim course of a peculiar relationship between two female teachers (Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot) and its sadistic headmaster . Atmospherically shot in black and white, its murky tones hauntingly echo the moral ambiguity of its principals. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot expertly keeps the viewer gripped in a manner that recalls (or even prefigures) Hitchcock at his very best. The end caption of the film pleads with the audience not to reveal the ending of the film to any of their friends, and once you've seen it you'll understand why. This is a truly influential, intelligent, and unforgettable film.
The story goes that a fellow told Alfred Hitchcock that after his daughter saw Psycho she refused to take a shower and that after she saw Diabolique she refused to get in a bathtub. Well, Hitchcock said, send her to the dry cleaners.
Diabolique is one of the most masterful scary movies you could hope to see. Even after 50 years, when the twist is probably well known, the movie is so well crafted and so well acted that it still carries me along. It takes place in a second-rate French boarding school for boys run by a sneering brute named Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse). His wife, Christine Delasalle (Vera Clouzot), who actually has the money in the family, is a weak woman with a bad heart, whom he abuses and humiliates. He openly has taken as a mistress a teacher in the school, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), whom he has smacked around one too many times. Christine and Nicole hatch a plan to lure Delasalle to Nicole's house some distance from the school. There, they will drug and drown him, then carry him back to the school and pitch his body into the unused, scum covered water of the school's swimming pool. When the body is discovered, it will be called a suicide or an accident. The two women pull it off...but when the pool is drained, there is no body. Then the suit Delasalle was wearing is delivered to the school by a laundry. A student is given a penalty and says it was the headmaster. A Delasalle appears to have registered at a local hotel. The two women don't know what is happening, and the strain begins to tell on them. They begin to bicker and blame each other. Nicole leaves the school. Christine must stay, but she is showing signs of emotional and physical collapse. Then the plot really begins.
So many elements, for me, really work. Everything in the film looks tawdry and worn. The swimming pool water is filthy and covered with slime. Every now and then small bubbles break the surface. The photography (and the film is shot in black and white) feature deep shadows, dark nights, candles. A shoe will appear, half hidden; a doorknob slowly turns; a bathtub looks like it could use a scrubbing. And there is no background music to speak of, just the quiet sounds of things moving and breathing. At the same time, the activities of the boys in the school are well developed and we come to recognize several of them. They bring us back a bit from the sense of something terrible happening, then we slip back into the movie.
Clouzot, in my opinion, has done a terrific job of building a sense of dread, but at the same time keeping us off balance by disguising what may be happening. Even though the "secret" of the plot is by now well known, Clouzot's craftsmanship keeps us (or at least me) watching. He spends whatever time he needs to build a scene or create an atmosphere. Watch how the serving of fish at the start of the movie is used to create whole stories about the school, the life of the boys, the situation of the teachers, and the characters of Michel Delasalle and his wife. Watch how Clouzot builds a creepy sense of dread when Christine goes to the morgue to identify what she thinks may be her husband's body. The sequence takes us from Christine trying to establish why she thinks the body is her husband's to the two attendants taking a cheap wooden casket from the basement of the morgue to the viewing room. At some point we realize that we are getting nervous ourselves about what might be in that box.
The end of the movie, when it was released initially in the United States, had people leaping three feet off their seats. That probably won't happen now to a new viewer, but the movie remains, in my opinion, a very fine piece of work.
on 2 April 2005
Based on a novel by Boileau & Narcejac. "Les Diaboliques" is a highly influential French psychological drama - the staccato music at the start has the monotonous tension which is generated at the beginning of 'Psycho', and the film was much enjoyed by Hitchcock himself.
Set in the Institution De Lasalle, a school for boys, the building itself is presented in silhouette, an ominous precursor of Hitchcock's Bates' hotel. The theme is that of the eternal triangle. The wife, Vera Clouzot, owns the school and wants rid of her husband, the school's tyrannical headmaster. The mistress, Simone Signoret, another teacher at the school, has tired of her affair and also wants rid of him.
The viewer is sympathetic. The husband is a brute of a man who beats his women, terrorises the school's staff, and rules the children like a despot. If ever a man needed killing! But how can two frail women hope to kill such a man and not be caught. Signoret has a cunning plan! The relationship between the women builds in intensity as they hatch their plot and lure him to the chosen killing ground. Will they succeed? Will they get away with it?
This is a superbly paced drama, tightly directed, the tension built layer by layer. It's a sophisticated plot which, despite its 1954 vintage, has lost none of its appeal - it was remade as 'Diabolique' in 1996 (with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani). The themes are eternal. Red herrings litter the plot. False trails lead off in every direction. And yet you can watch it again and again and still enjoy the interaction between the characters and the confusion which seems to plague their existence.
A first class thriller, character driven with intense performances from the cast, taut direction and editing, and atmospheric black and white photography. A film which deserves a wider audience ... and which no self-respecting French teacher should fail to show to their class!
on 24 May 2011
Many reviews here pretty much give every plot detail away, as far as the Blu-Ray version is concerned, great picture, fantastic (5 star) film, extras are thorough - but the translation is TERRIBLE.
If a film is sold in the UK with optional subtitles, make those subtitles complete and check the grammar - I've never seen so many semicolons!!
Distracting and arrogant, it doesn't read well and is flat and incomplete. Many, many occasions that heard dialogue just isn't translated.
The films looks and sounds amazing, a short course in French makes the experience complete :/
Here's a reason to turn your back on modern hollywood schlock dross and return to a time when intelligence, story, acting and sheer craftmanship actually meant something.
A beautifully worked story, setting us up in a boy's boarding school and the twisted relationship between a headmaster, his wife, and his mistress. By the time the two women get together and decide to rid themselves of him they have our total sympathy. But a simple plan soon unravels when the body disappears....
Engrossing to the very end,this film is a classic of old-school horror - building dread upon dread, and bringing everything together into a startling finale. It deserves its reputation in the pantheon of great movies.
There are countless reviews of this seminal film to be read on the internet, so I shall direct my focus away from the aspects with which most of them deal.
Consider, for example the backdrops. Have you noticed how detailed and intricate they are? Every cobblestone in a street is seen, every crease on a bedcover, every scratch on a door handle - every shot is crammed with detail. I cannot recall seeing a blank wall or a plain open space.
This richness of visual detail is usually missing in Hitchcock films. I also find a richer dialogue than Hitchcock at this period ever provided. Richer too is the cast of eccentrics, drunkards, neighbours, and bit players. The drunkard who attempts to secrete himself in the back of the van containing the body in the basket, once seen, is never forgotten.
Writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote the novel and the film rights were obtained by Clouzot only hours before Hitchcock's bid was received. Never mind if Simone Signoret usually has a cigarette protruding from her mouth in the early scenes, never mind that she and Vera Clouzot are made to totter around on the absurdly high-heeled shoes women wore in the mid 1950s, this is a film that will look good and captivate audiences forever.
on 24 March 2005
although i am only a teenager, i saw this film in my french lessons and it managed to keep a classroom of smart arsed 14 year olds captivated for the four or five lessons it was stretched out over. the suspense and drama of the film managed to easily overpower the noise and activity outside the classroom and the ending is both terrifying and also with a genius twist. it is an excellent, excellent film and should and will be watched by all ages avidly.
on 5 January 2015
A pure cinema classic. You can see why it was such an influence on Hitchcock and others. Very good transfer to Blu-Ray. Great picture, although, due to the age of the film don't expect miracles. (For that check out 'Powell and Presburgers's The Red Shoes' BluRay release).The sound is also very good. The booklet is very informative, much more than a mere inlay card. Recommended for true movie fans and a pure must for modern film historians. Once watched, don't give the end away, don't spoil it! A real honest 5 star film.
on 18 November 2003
Simone Signoret is one of the greatest French actresses that ever lived. In this film, in black and white mind you and that black and white is used to perfection, the perfection that Hitchcock reached in many of his films, Simone Signoret gets us involved in an extremely sombre and dark thriller where she plays a double game, killing without killing in order to kill with the intent to kill. Transitive or transferred killing. That is fascinating and the punch line is absolutely amazing and shocking in many ways. That film is also a deep discourse on French society ten years after the second World War : bleak and sinister. Education is shown as a constant torture of the poor boys who are the victims of their « teachers ». Married life is shown as a sham and a total hypocritical lie without any love. And love is shown as the most drastically criminal motivation in life. Love can only exist as the outcome of murder. But Simone Signoret goes even farther because we never know if she is an angel of justice or a devil of crime. She is both an angel of light and hope and at the same time a devil of darkness and despair. She is able to assume this double personality and to make us feel a desire to kill because it seems to be the only humane solution. And yet she constantly gives us this aftertaste that has the texture of blood and guilt. And yet the punchline is absolutely frightening because it shows how little each one of us is when in the hands of such a schizophrenic criminal and her own doppelganger. She is a Janus of crime and of life at the same time. Life is just like crime, a lie and a sham, a desire and a fear, a pleasure and a pain, an enjoyment and a torture. This original film is a hundred times better than its American remake, « Games », because there is no humor, no fun, no laughter, not even a smile in « Les Diaboliques », whereas we can smile with satisfaction at the end of « Games », the satisfaction that the criminal is the real judge, executioner and angel of justice. Here Simone Signoret is a dreadful encounter that we must by all means avoid if we want to survive and remain sane.
on 31 December 2004
Surely if this was a Hollywood movie it would rate alongside the likes of Psycho, Gone With The Wind and It's A Wonderful Life. Les Diboliques (The Devils) was, in fact, a blueprint for Psycho and you can see how Hitchcock was influenced by this film. A brutal headmaster in an oppressive school is murdereded by his wife and mistress, but the body disappears and his spirit appears to haunt them. The ending is a classic twist and perhaps one of the most alarming moments in cinema history. An absolute must.