Les Diaboliques (1955) is a tale of cold-blooded, calculated murder and suspense. Murder and suspense are always billed together in this kind of film, however, in the case of Les Diaboliques, this is equivalent to suggesting that Shakespeare was merely a playwright who was born in 1564 or that Bengal tigers are colourful quadrupeds.
In essence, Les Diaboliques is one of the greatest suspense films of all time. The film mingles aspects of moral decrepitude, revenge, a well-crafted ballet of appearance and reality, and the intricacies of the evil mind and how it never takes a rest. These themes come together in an eloquent and elegant cinematic/literary tribute to the craftiness of the fox and the wisdom and patience of the hare. I’ve always thought of Les Diaboliques as an Aesopian yarn of the hunter and the hunted, where the latter leads the expedition into attrition.
The lyrically mesmerising beauty of this film has to do with our witnessing just how the hare outfoxes the fox. In other words, how the fox outfoxes itself. Just how much the tables are turned on the hunter by its prey; this is the staple technique of this wonderful film. Don’t think that I will spoil it for you, for even if one wanted to, Les Diaboliques’ plot is far from easy to give away. Besides, when this magnificent film was first released, the director and the production company virtually begged moviegoers not to reveal the ending. I will honour this request.
At its core, Les Diaboliques is a story of avarice, a love triangle and the degree of evil craftiness that fuels each. Yet it is not a simple task to figure out just who is the most heinous character in this tale of moral torment. The psychological suspense of the film forces us to enter into the mind and soul of the characters. Les Diaboliques is not an experience for the lazy. Evil is subtle. The most effective perpetrator is always found quietly plotting and calculating behind the scenes. The writers of Les Diaboliques capture the meaning and import of evil like few films in this genre ever have.
M. and Mme Delasalle (Paul Meurisse and Véra Clouzot) own and run a boy’s boarding school. M. Delasalle is a tyrannical man. One of the teachers at the school, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), is his mistress. Adding fuel to this classic plot of resentment, hate and double-dealing is the fact that all of the parties involved live in close quarters in the same building.
A short time into the story, the wife and mistress conjure up a sinister plot to do away with their mutual tormentor, M. Delasalle. The two women leave the school during a weekend. They travel to Horner’s apartment in another town and invite their nemesis to come over. Mme Delasalle is going to ask her husband for a divorce. Of course, the official plan is to give him poison-tainted alcohol and then drown him in the bathtub. The mastermind behind the planning of the man’s murder is Horner. All along, we watch her incite anger and hate in her co-conspirator.
The two women place the dead man’s body in a large wicker chest and bring his body back to the school, where they dump it into the pool. They wait several days for the body to surface or to be discovered by one of the students. However, this does not happen. Instead, the two women begin to get hysterical. This is the point where the infighting begins in earnest. The suspense truly begins when someone delivers the suit that M. Delasalle was wearing when murdered from the cleaners.
Putting plot elements aside, Les Diaboliques is a three-dimensional study of evil, and how this always involves doing the devil’s work and looking good while doing it. Les Diaboliques’ linear plot moves along seamlessly, like a taut murder mystery. There can be no doubt that the film’s effective screenplay is partly responsible for its critical success.
While the two women quickly conspire to kill M. Delasalle, the viewer is only privy to a portion of the plan they conjure up. Les Diaboliques does not telegraph its punches. Even to the very end, the film remains engaging, never letting on what is about to take place next.
The cool-tempered mistress and the anxiety-ridden wife are two different examples of how women handle their diabolical intentions. For instance, after M. Delasalle’s body is not found in the school’s pool, Mme Delasalle’s nervousness gets the better of her. She tells the mistress that they should turn themselves in to the police.
One of the lasting mysteries of Les Diaboliques is: Just who are “the devils?” Are all three main characters devils, or only M. Delasalle and Horner? Don’t look for Clouzot’s coherent direction and exquisitely imaginative screenplay to give anything away.
Les Diaboliques/Diaboliques/The Fiends (1955 France 116 mins)
Prod Co: Filmsonor/Vera Films Prod, Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Scr: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, Frédéric Grendel, René Masson, based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac Phot: Armand Thirard Ed: Madeleine Gug Art Dir: Léon Barsacq Mus: Georges Van Parys
Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault, Thérèse Dorny