by Lee Purvey
“It's swimmers who drown. Non-swimmers keep away,” mutters private detective Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel) part way through Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic French thriller Diabolique. While the good-natured detective is specifically referring to Michel Delassalle, who has gone missing from his post as headmaster at the Institution Delassalle boarding school, the statement could just as easily be applied to the film as a whole, in which a reckless plan of murder sets in motion a course of events that bodes ill for everyone who made the mistake of getting involved.
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Producers: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Georges Lourau
Writers: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, Frédéric Grendel, Pierre Boileau (novel), Thomas Narcejac (novel)
Cinematographer: Armand Thirard
Editor: Madeleine Gug
Music: Georges Van Parys
Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Thérèse Dorny, Michel Serrault, Georges Chamarat
US Theatrical Release: November 21, 1955
US Distributor: United Motion Pictures Organization, Kino International (rerelease)
The film begins with what appears to be a fairly straightforward murder plot in the making. Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) are the wife and lover, respectively, of the emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive Michel, played with swaggering sadism by Paul Meurisse. Having endured Headmaster Delassalle's tormenting long enough, the pair of unlikely allies hatch a plan to lure him away from the school during a three-day holiday, murder him, and return his body to the grounds, where his death will bear the appearance of an accident.
While Christina—who has a history of heart trouble and chronic fits of swooning—is hesitant to go through with the murder, Nicole's tenacious personality wins out and the deed is done. Following a return journey sprinkled with darkly comic close calls straight out of a Coen Brothers film, the pair arrive back at the school, depositing Michel's already soggy body in the grounds' swimming pool. From here, the film should be a simple waiting game to see whether the murderers get away with the crime, but when the body disappears, Christina and Nicole find the tables suddenly turning.
This is a bleak fictional world, one lacking in clearcut heroes and villains. Instead, its characters fall on something of a spectrum of moral fallibility, keeping the viewer's sympathies in a state of flux that only serves to amplify the narrative tension. Keeping in line with this universe, Henri-Georges Clouzot creates an aesthetic borrowed from film noir, full of dimly lit apartments and long hallways cast in shadow, to generally great effect. Only Vanel's bumbling detective—something like a comedic Porfiry Petrovich, driven more by innocent interest than the killer investigative instinct of Dostoevsky's policeman—feels out of place, both tonally jarring and an awkward genre self-parody.
Otherwise, the cast's performances fit this hard-boiled mood quite well. Signoret, who would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in Room at the Top (1959), is a standout. Nicole's unapologetic survivalism and blunt sexuality contrast sharply with Vera Clouzot's insecure damsel in distress and make her an enigmatic and intriguing character to watch. Nicole's lover, Michel Dellassale, is equally watchable and utterly hateful.
Henri-Georges Clouzot's wife's breathy turn as Christina, on the other hand, is frequently overwrought, her eyes bulging grotesquely as she patters about in perpetual hysterics. Still, as a character who pinballs between the manipulative influence of a number of individuals, the inexperienced actress' melodramatic performance (she only worked in two other films, both her husband's) generally works.
At least in English-language biographies, the figure Henri-Georges Clouzot is most frequently associated with is Alfred Hitchcock, and the comparison to the “Master of Suspense” isn't a bad one. Clouzot shows a deft hand at building tension over the course of the film, letting the audience squirm with his protagonists, as he teases narrative resolution over and over, each time pulling it back at the last minute like a bullfighter's muleta.
The suspense, then, in Diabolique frequently has more to do with plot than the type of jump-out surprises one might expect from a horror film. Repeatedly the camera finds the physical symbols of the protagonists' guilt—the drugged liquor bottle the women use to sedate Michel before drowning him, the murky pool where they dispose of his body. The resulting effect on the audience is neither moral disgust nor sympathy, but a desperate desire to simply see the consequences of the murder played out, for better or worse. This feeling does more for the film than a dozen jolting surprises.
When Clouzot finally gets around to a classically terrifying sequence at the film's climax, the scene's unbearable suspense is built on these unconsummated transgressions, which have been tormenting the film's anti-heroes for its entirety. The additional fact that Clouzot creates such a suspenseful atmosphere without a note of music after the opening credits speaks to his immense talent.
Considering its irreligious sounding title alone, Diabolique might easily be mistaken for a campy creature feature or a paranormal freak show in the vein of The Exorcist or any of its lesser progeny. What Clouzot's most famous film offers, however, is a much subtler brand of terror. Indeed, his title's direct referent is neither a character nor some supernatural force, but a written message that follows the 1-2-3 punch of the film's climax, imploring audience members not to spoil the surprise for their friends. What makes Diabolique an enduring work is its ability to make you guess how it is going scare you.