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Clouzot’s Masterly Noir-like Horror
on 9 March 2015
I must admit I find it very difficult to find fault with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterly 1955 psychological thriller (or horror, if you prefer, though, for me, the film transcends genre). Not only is the film’s premise of two (apparently) 'oppressed’ women, boarding school teachers Vera Clouzot’s Chrstina Delassalle and Simone Signoret’s mistress Nicole Horner, plotting to do away with their cruel persecutor, Christina’s husband and school principal, Paul Meurisse’s Michel Delassalle, rather novel plot-wise (a sort of variation on the noirs Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), but the 'female pairing’ also introduces the daring (and similarly novel) underlying theme of female homoeroticism, hints at which Clouzot uses subtly to underpin the pair’s scheming. Then, courtesy of a brilliantly dark (often ironically humorous) screenplay by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (based on the Boileau-Narcejac novel), a superlative cast featuring a number of great character acting turns (in addition to the film’s three 'stars’) and a stunning ‘eye for cinematic detail’ delivered by Armand Thirard’s evocative black-and-white cinematography and you have a feast of tense, atmospheric cinema which scores on pretty much every front.
Indeed, it is the film’s visual attention to detail which, alongside its macabre plot (of course), calls to my mind the comparator frequently cited for Les Diaboliques – namely the films of the master of this genre, Alfred Hitchcock. As Nicole and Christina put their (perhaps slightly fanciful) plan into operation, Thirard’s camera lingers deliciously on a series of key plot drivers – telephone, pacing feet, bottle of poison, gullet, dripping tap, lighter, etc – accentuating the tension in the process. Similarly, one of the film’s central preoccupations (a corpse) would also have delighted Hitch (cf. The Trouble With Harry – made the same year), as would Clouzot’s use of comedic characterisations – in particular, Nicole and Christina’s neighbours Mrs and Mrs Herboux (Noel Roquevert and Therese Dorny) juxtaposing the everyday (listening to the radio) with the ghoulish. Indeed, Clouzot’s cast is pretty much faultless - Meurisse particularly good as the tyrannical, cruel husband, whose double-standards demand pupil respect whilst he plumbs the depths of amorality, Signoret typically impressive as the semi-sinister, clinical mistress, Clouzot (the director’s wife) convincing as the repressed, timid and spiritual ex-nun and Charles Vanel great in a cameo as the persistently curious retired police commissioner, Fichet. Clouzot also uses the anarchic school backdrop as a great, ironically comic 'framing device’ (à la Zero de Conduite) for the drama.
In terms of legacy, as well as the various direct remakes, one can trace Les Diaboliques’ influence in a whole series of diverse films, including Heavenly Creatures, Ginger Snaps and (even) Thelma And Louise. There are also other (what appear to be) direct 'lifts’ from Clouzot’s film – for example, the 'non-existent hotel resident’ (North By Northwest) and the portentous typewriter (The Shining).
It’s a film that disguises its many deceptions brilliantly (making repeat viewing a must) until Clouzot’s shocking denouement, which cements the place of Les Diaboliques in the very highest echelons of the genre of dark, psychological thriller.