Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot and Paul Meurisse
Plot: The wife of a cruel headmaster and his mistress conspire to kill him, but after the murder is committed, his body disappears, and strange events begin to plague the two women.
Genre: Film-Noir / Horror / Mystery
Rating: PG for some disturbing content.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
Often dubbed the best film Alfred Hitchcock never made, Diabolique is a French classic with strong elements of mystery that will continue to keep you guessing until its final frame. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot warned audiences in the end credits not to reveal any plot twists to first-time viewers.
And like Psycho (1960), Clouzot refused entry to anyone who was late for the screenings. Though it must be said that Hitchcock's 'publicity stunt' was more infamous, but no less memorable. Still, Diabolique has over the decades retained a cult-like status, and remains arguably the defining French suspense-mystery picture of the 1950s.
Diabolique is believed to have influenced Psycho, less in terms of plot, but more of visual design and cinematography. There are shots of a lighted window with a human silhouette in the dead of night; a murder is committed in a bathtub; and although there isn't a murky pond to sink a body in, there is a swimming pool that seems like it has not been cleaned in years.
The black-and-white cinematography evokes feelings of unease. Its noir qualities also effectively portray a bleak and despairing outlook, at least for its two lead female characters, creating a psychologically unsettling atmosphere.
Wrongly classified as horror, I feel, Diabolique is as much a horror film as Drive (2011) is an action feature, even though the premise reads like one. The less said about Diabolique's plot the better because not knowing what to expect is part of your discovery of this superbly-crafted film.
Set in a boarding school in an isolated place far from town, Nicole (Simone Signoret) and Christina (Vera Clouzot) plan to kill Michel (Paul Meurisse), the school's sadistic principal and dump his body into the pool. But when the pool is drained days later, no body is found.
And that's when the film really begins, after almost an hour of set-up and character development. Patient viewers will reap the benefits of a long set-up, essential for creating the kind of character empathy that is the hallmark of great 1950s mystery pictures like Vertigo (1958) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
The central character of Diabolique is not Michel but Christina, his weak wife with a heart condition, and who has had enough of Michel's evil ways to want to kill him. Even then, she remains fickle-minded, only to be pushed all the way by Nicole, Michel's headstrong mistress.
Diabolique has a few tricks up its sleeves, but first and foremost, it is a potent exercise in suspense filmmaking. Its back-to-the-basics approach to suspense is admirable, and like Hitchcock, Clouzot understands suspense is not about what is out there in the unknown, but what we know that is inside of us, that is, our deepest fears.
Clouzot's film builds up to a climax that strips down Christina's fears (and ours) to the barest, as both character and viewer become one entity in one of the most tense sequences ever directed and edited in classic French cinema.
Verdict: Arguably the defining work of classic French suspense-mystery cinema, by who else but Clouzot.
GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)