I became aware of Les Diaboliques as part of my Uni based Hitchcock obsession, and the discovery that rights for the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac were almost bought by Hitch ensured that I had to track down this film.
That the film took me out of my self imposed exile on Planet Hitchcock is testament to the power at play here, the film seduced me from the outset and twisted my emotions and expectations through the story of murder, paranoia and terror. Revisiting the film on this beautiful Blu-ray, released today, compounds my feelings on the film. It still has that power.
Henri-Georges Clouzot cast his wife Vera opposite the immaculate presence of Simone Signoret as the wife and mistress of the domineering and abusive headmaster Delassalle, played by Paul Meurisse. They hatch a plot to murder the man, to free themselves. I can’t go into too many details as when the film originally appeared in cinemas it displayed this title card after the film ended.
Roughly translated it reads: Don’t be a devil – don’t tell anyone what you just saw.
Just as Hitchcock asked cinema owners to turn latecomers away from Psycho there is good reason to adhere to this request from the filmmaker. The conclusion of the film is a classic and I don’t want to spoil it except to say that the film is perfectly paced leading up to the all important scene.
As for the film itself, there is genuine terror here; an eerie disquiet haunts the film even in broad daylight the open air holds a tangible menace as the story is unravelled bit by bit. It rivals Robert Wise’s The Haunting for its use of location and space; the unseen horror and the danger in the dark.
The performances are subtle and the story given great weight by the two leading ladies, with Clouzot making great use of the bleaching daylight and the dark shadows contained within the schoolhouse.
On this Blu-ray edition the beautiful light and dark of the film’s climatic scenes have never looked better, beads of sweat on the Christina’s forehead are visible, her terror is heightened through some inventive sound design and some truly impeccable editing and the framing Clouzot employs. Though the familiar suspenseful elements are played out, hands in glove, light entering through shutters, doors open and close slowly, they are given a compelling edge because we are connected to the acts of the characters, whether we like it or not.
The final scene retains its power. I knew it was coming, it still froze my blood, and I noticed the details the director places in the most ordinary of moments. This is a film to revisit, and it will reward you on each occasion. The extras on the disc are listed below, but of chief interest is the commentary from Susan Hayward.
She beings by comparing Clouzot to Hitchcock before quickly noting the decay and unglamorous nature of Clouzot’s work. The disharmony on display here, quite opposed to Hitchcock’s famed slices of cake. The commentary is rich with Production details and insightful appraisal taking us sequence by sequence through the film, deconstructing the characters, combing through the details on screen and the film is more than capable of withstanding such a rigoursous analysis.
The dark games Clouzot plays with us are laid out in the misdirection, the red herrings and the often obscured sexual undertone which pervades the film. The power struggles at the heart of the film and the notion of what is believable and unbelievable, as well as aesthetic qualities such as Clouzot’s use of natural light and sound (apart from the title tune there is no music here). It is reason enough to get the disc.
Duplicity, subterfuge and the intense dread of paranoia combine to give Les Diaboliques that most curious of powers: to draw us into a terrible act, to play with our sympathies and then, when it has us in its grip, begin to turn the screws until we feel every moment of fear palpably, we share the cloying air and clutch our hearts at the closing moments. We do this because this is not a tale filled with ghosts and the sudden flick of a knife’s blade, but it is a sad story filled with human fear, desire, folly and desperation.
• Brand new High Definition transfer of the film from a new restoration of the original negative
• Audio commentary by Susan Hayward, author of Les diaboliques (Cine-file French Film Guides)
• Original Trailer
• Filmed interview with Ginette Vincendeau, French cinema scholar, critic and author
• Original Trailer
• Brand new writing on the film by author and critic Brad Stevens and a re-printed interview with Clouzot by Paul Schrader illustrated with stills and rare original set drawings by Léon Barsacq.
• Artwork presentation packaging including original posters and a newly commissioned artwork cover
This Blu-ray of Les Diaboliques is available right now.