Les Diaboliques (1955)


*. The end of this movie has a warning to audiences against providing “spoilers” to those who haven’t seen it yet. As I state on my About page, my commentaries here all assume that you’ve already seen the movies I’m discussing so I don’t give spoiler alerts. But I will here just because Clouzot made a such a thing about it. If you haven’t already seen Les Diaboliques, please do so now. You’ll like it.
*. As for the rest of us, it’s sad but you can’t see a movie again for the first time. I do remember being held on the edge of my seat by this one the first time I saw it, especially because I didn’t already know the story (no “devils” had spoiled it for me). And I was genuinely shocked by the ending. But re-watching it . . . well, I’ll get to that.
*. Casting. Get it right, and it’s very hard to go wrong. Paul Meurisse looks worn in that French male way, and is perfect as a low-rent heel trying to keep up appearances. Véra Clouzot was easy: the wife of the autocrat behind the camera, suffering from her own dangerous heart condition. As for Simone Signoret, she’s definitely got that look that’s falling on the butch side of the beauty-and-the-butch divide, but (if you’re male) don’t you kind of, sort of, wish that you could be a boy again just to be slapped around by such a schoolmarm? That’s not my usual fantasy script, but here, in this one case, I’d make an exception.


*. Speaking of Signoret’s butch appearance (short hair, cigarette, Ray-bans), it looks even more pronounced when towering over Véra Clouzot as the petite, braided dual-pony tails-and-gingham dress femme. It’s perhaps worth noting that in the novel the two conspirators were actually a lesbian couple who scare the husband to death. When you see Nicole and Christina together it’s hard not to feel an echo of that, and I’m sure Clouzot does this on purpose.
*. Music. There isn’t any after that pounding organ playing over the titles. Would music have made the film more effective? Imagine the final bathtub scene with Bernard Hermann’s strings ratcheting up the tension, and a series of jump cuts to Clouzot’s face or the body in the tub. Yes, it might have been tacky. But I think it would have worked. Hitch didn’t mind being tacky if it added to the effect.
*. No, I don’t think the murder plot bears much thinking about. It’s far, far too complicated to achieve the conspirators’ rather simple end. But then the plot in Vertigo (which the same authors wrote specially for Hitchcock after he narrowly missed out on buying the rights to this story) is even more farfetched.
*. Véra Clouzot’s reaction to seeing her husband rising from the tub is the most famous shot in the film, but note how many times it’s rehearsed. That turning movement, often with her back against a wall, eyes wide at something, actually occurs several times. She seems to be always in a state bordering on shock. She’s someone who is “about to explode.”
*. In The Wages of Fear we saw people who were always about to explode as well. But here we’re not sure what form the explosion will take.
*. Why is there any water in the pool in the first place? Obviously the pool isn’t being used (despite it apparently being summer), which means it’s just a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
*. It’s been re-made, or re-imagined, several times (a loose definition under which I would include films like Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte).
*. But to return to where I started. It’s an interesting question as to how much you can enjoy re-watching a film like this, whose main, if not entire, purpose is to fool you once. I appreciate the craft involved, but on repeated viewings I can’t say I find it that interesting. But then a lot of Hitchcock’s work makes me feel the same way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.


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