DIABOLIQUE (or LES DIABOLIQUE) is a delightfully wicked thriller with twists and turns that surprise and that have been copied by many modern movies – the most recent, the upcoming Summit movie SORORITY ROW which borrows heavily (by the trailers at least) from the DIABOLIQUE stort and twists.
Falling into the fabulous category of Film Noir and featuring all the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock movie (and it almost was one, but more on that later) DIABOLIQUE is about a frail young woman (Vera Clouzot) with a heart condition whose sadistic husband (Paul Meurisse) runs the private school that she owns. Not only does he ridicule and abuse her, but he openly carries on a torrid affair with one of the teachers on staff (Simone Signoret), a confident and strong woman who literally oozes sexuality. The mistress, who also suffers at the brute’s hands, convinces the wife to help her murder him which they do. Hiding the corpse in a pool to make it look like an accident, the body later turns up missing when the pool is drained and mysterious events begin to occur.
French director Henri Georges-Clouzot gave us 2 very influential movies during the 50s, the first being 1953s WAGES OF FEAR (which was later remade into SORCERER in 1977 by William Friedkin), and the second being DIABOLIQUE released in 1955. Clouzot barely beat out Alfred Hitchcock for the rights to the source material which was Thomas Narcejac’s SHE WHO WAS NO MORE. Luckily for us, Narcejac later wrote FROM AMONG THE DEAD specifically for Hitchcock which became his masterpiece VERTIGO.
There is something about the French locale and language that adds to the Noir tone of DIABOLIQUE not to mention the characters are all complete extremes of their types – the frail wife, the sadistic husband, the sexy mistress - yet Henri still manages to make them into full fleshed out individuals. Even though the locale does not match the usual dark alleys and city streets that one commonly associates with Film Noir, somehow director Georges-Clouzot makes this quaint country private school seem menacing with deep shadows and suspense seemingly lurking around every corner.
As always, there is a very nosey and determined police office who seems to be just persistent enough in his job to make life rough for our heroines, especially that of the troubled wife whose guilt is all but consuming her.
Even with many of the twists that have been copied, DIABOLIQUE is still a fun ride, and is so well directed that like with a Hitchcock film, you get wrapped up in the story enough that even events that you probably could guess are about to happen still manage to surprise.
Hollywood remade DIABOLIQUE in 1996 with Isabelle Adjani as the wife, Chazz Palminteri as the husband and (who else) Sharon Stone as the sexy seductress. Additional, Kathy Bates played the Detective investigating the husband’s disappearance. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik (BENNY & JOON), the remake of DIABOLIQUE lost all of its suspense and charm thanks to flat direction and a way too glossy production design that destroyed the mysterious atmosphere that made original so great.
The American Cinematheque is screening DIABOLIQUE on Wednesday, August 5 at 7:30pm at the Aero in Santa Monica. I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen, although if you miss it, it is also available in a fabulous Criterion Collection DVD.
Following DIABOLIQUE is Jacques Becker’s CASQUE D’OR, a more romantic crime drama also featuring star Simone Signoret which is a complete departure of the suspense thriller that is DIABOLIQUE. Released in 1952, it deals with a love triangle involving 2 gangsters, a carpenter and of course, the object of their desire, Ms. Signoret.
Film Noir meets the French New Wave!
As always, it is 1 admission price for 2 movies at the Cinematheque.
The American Cinematheque website can be accessed HERE.
The press release from the American Cinematheque follows.
Wednesday, August 5 – 7:30 PM
DIABOLIQUE, 1955, Janus Films, 110 min. Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot. One of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, DIABOLIQUE focuses on the browbeaten wife (Vera Clouzot) of a brutal schoolmaster and his tough-as-nails mistress (Simone Signoret), as they team up to murder their mutual tormentor. But that’s only the beginning of this edge-of-your-seat affair, a twisting, turning shocker that still holds up today as one of the all-time classics of suspense. Legend has it that Clouzot beat Hitchcock to the punch by only an hour in sewing up rights to the original novel by Pierre Boileau. With sardonic Charles Vanel as the poker-faced inspector. Trailer
CASQUE D’OR, 1952, Janus Films, 96 min. Dir. Jacques Becker. Do not miss this sublime masterpiece of romantic French cinema – simultaneously a heartbreaking adult fairy tale and an impressionist rendering of the turn-of-the-century Parisian underworld. The fleeting moments of shared love and erotic passion between Serge Reggiani and Simone Signoret are genuine poetry – moments cut short by the jealous machinations of others.