This post contains spoilers. So unless you know what’s in the bath water, close the bathroom door and come back when you do.
Les Diabolique (1955), also known as Diabolique and The Fiends, is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Upon release in France, the film caused a sensation due to its dark subject matter and twist ending. It is currently number 224 on the IMDB Top 250 films list, and was remade in 1996 starring Sharon Stone, Chazz Palminteri and Kathy Bates, which was poorly received.
Originally sought after by Alfred Hitchcock, the film’s director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, apparently managed to purchase the rights to the book, Celle qui n’était plus, only a few hours before the great director of suspense. But Hitchcock would go on to say that he greatly admired the film, and Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, would go on to say that his favourite horror film was Les Diabolique.
Where is Michel?
The film is set at Delassalle Boarding School for boys, which is near Paris, and run by Michel (played by Paul Meurisse) and Christina Delassalle (played by Véra Clouzot, real life wife to Henri). Michel is abusive towards both his wife, Christina, and and his mistress, Nicole (played by Simone Signoret). Both women hate Michel, and have formed a strange, dependent friendship with one another. Nicole is protective towards Christina, who is mentally and physically fragile due to a severe heart condition.
Due to Michel’s continuous verbal and physical abuse, the two women plan to murder him, but Christina is reluctant due to her strong morals that are inseparable from her Catholic faith. Nicole has no such qualms, however, and reasons that Michel deserves to die, and that now is the time to take their chance and get rid of him.
There are many examples of Michel’s disturbing behaviour towards Christina throughout the film, but his humiliation of her in the dining hall where he makes her eat rotten fish is almost too much to take. The students also refuse to eat the fish, and are thrown out of the dining hall as they call for proper food.It is revealed that Christina pays for everything at the school as Michel has no money of his own. And it is quite clear that he would not be unhappy if his wife died of a heart attack. Once they are alone in the dining hall, Michel proceeds to rape his wife, which is evident from Christina’s distressed cries.
The school is closed for a three day holiday, allowing the two women to put their plan into action. They drive to Nicole’s hometown of Niort and take a large wicker trunk with them. Christina then phones Michel, and tells him she wants a divorce. As expected, he is furious, and tells his wife that he is coming to Niort by train.
Nicole buys a bottle of whiskey and drugs it. Christina is still reluctant to go through with their plan, but Nicole once again convinces her that it must be done. She goes upstairs to distract her two tenants, a married couple who are both teachers and who live an utterly mundane life, so that they do not see Michel come into the building upon his arrival.
When he does arrive, he tries to cajole her into not going through with the divorce, but quickly lapses back into his old ways after he brutally strikes her. She then encourages him to drink the sedative laced whiskey.
Michel passes out on the bed after insulting Christina and Nicole, before Nicole fills up the bath; much to her arrogant upstair’s tenant’s displeasure, who seems to feel that Nicole is the tenant and he is the landlord. Nicole drowns Michel in the bath, and Christina gives her a heavy ornament from the mantle piece to weigh him down. Christina begins to feel weak and has to leave the bathroom before Nicole covers the bath with a waterproof tablecloth. The tap dripping on the tablecloth keeps her awake the entire night.
When they leave the next day, they have a few close calls in terms of people almost discovering what is in the heavy wicker trunk in their car. When they arrive at the school, they dump Michel’s body in the moss covered pool.
For several days the body does not float to the surface, and Christina becomes increasingly worried. Some of the pupils are playing next to the pool, and when their ball lands in it, Nicole purposely throws her keys into the pool so that one of the boys has to dive in and get them. He does not find any body. Only Michel’s lighter.
Christina orders the pool to be emptied, but Michel’s body is not there, nor anywhere else on the school grounds. The suit, a Prince of Whales, in which he died, arrives freshly dry-cleaned at the school. Christina and Nicole go to the dry cleaner, where they are given a key for a residential hotel that was left in the suit. The hotel room registered under Michel’s name seems unoccupied, and no one at the hotel has ever seen him.
Christina and Nicole then accuse each other and try to shift the blame for the murder onto one another. But when Christina tries to call the police, Nicole stops her.
A few days later, Nicole shows Christina a report in the newspaper about a naked corpse that was found in the Seine. Nicole is convinced it is Michel, but when Christina goes to the morgue to identify the corpse, it is not her husband. Much to both Christina and Nicole’s displeasure and alarm, Alfred Fichet (played by Charles Vanel) a retired policeman who waits outside of the morgue everyday, becomes involved in the case.
Moinet, one of the younger pupils, is supposedly punished by Michel for breaking a window, but no one at the school believes him, and he is made to stand in the corner as punishment for lying.
Christina’s health worsens as she becomes more paranoid. A specialist comes to see her, but he tells Christina’s doctor that she will die soon.
After the school year photo is taken, Michel’s face appears in the window behind the pupils and teachers gathered in the picture. One of the teacher’s tries to explain this away with a supposedly logical explanation, but no one is entirely convinced. Nicole begs Christina to leave the school with her before it is too late, but Christina refuses due to her bad health, and so Nicole leaves without her.
When Christina awakens to find Fitchet lurking in her room that night, she cannot help by confess the entire scheme that she and Nicole formulated. Fitchet seems unsurprised by this, and makes a cryptic comment about Christina’s innocence before leaving her room. He then finds the waterproof tablecloth and wicker trunk in the storage room about the school garage.
Christina sees Michel’s shadow in the windows across the courtyard, and follows him to the study, where his name has been typed on a typewriter over and over again. She runs back to her room to find Michel’s corpse in the bath, which then begins to rise from the water. Christina cannot take the shock and has a fatal heart attack.
It is then revealed that Michel was never dead, and that he and Nicole planned the entire ruse in order to get Christina’s money after she died. However, Fitchet has solved the case, and tells them that instead of becoming rich, they’ll be going to prison for the rest of their lives.
Moinet once again breaks a window. One of the teachers asks how he got his slingshot back, to which he replies that Christina gave it to him. The teacher reprimands him for lying and makes him stand in the corner once more, but Moinet is adamant that he saw Christina.
The film ends with a message asking the audience not to divulge the ending of the film to anyone.
Les Diabolique is well deserving of its reputation, as there is not a moment of the film that is not laced with building tension that is almost unbearably taut, like a tightrope that is about to snap and plunge all the players to their demise. It is a study in alienation and the darkness of human impulse. Christina is a Venezuelan immigrant, who has fragile health and an abusive husband. Her only friend is a woman who is complicit in her unhappiness, and who then is revealed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Christina is infantilised and othered throughout the film, due to a triple fold state of marginalising: she is a woman, a “foreigner” and sickly. All three things rob her of her independence and cause people within the film’s universe to belittle her. The only one who does not treat her as if she is inferior is Fitchet.
The characterisation in the film is very powerful. The three main characters could come across as caricatures, especially the two female leads. But this is avoided both through a very tight script and excellent performances. None of the actors in the film overact. All of them are entirely believable in their roles. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret’s performances stand out.
Véra Clouzot entirely embodies the role of Christina, making the audience feel simultaneously sorry for her and frustrated by her lack of ability to stand up to Michel. The manner in which she acts out her death scene is incredible. I will not try to explain what makes the performance so memorable, because it has to be watched in order to ascertain that, but I will say that the manner in which the scene is shot is also extremely successful. Simone Signoret is pitch perfect. Henri Clouzot apparently criticised her performance as being “too knowing” in terms of the films outcome, but I do not agree with that assessment. The first time I watched the film, I had no idea that Nicole had thrown in her lot with Michel, and believed that while she was an immoral character, she was on Christina’s side. I feel that Simone Signoret gives an Oscar worthy performance, because like Véra she embodies the role, but she manages to be even more natural and understated while doing so. She manages to be both confident and vulnerable, and then deceptive and unforgiving.
The film’s visuals are a triumph. While it is undoubtedly a psychological horror film, most obviously in Michel and Vera’s death scenes, typified by Michel’s chill inducing “resurrection”; it also has noir elements. The film is a world of shadows. As the film goes on, more events start to take place at night, under the cover of darkness. After Michel’s “death” very little of the film takes place during the day, seemingly visualising Christina’s increasingly morbid and paranoid outlook in the film. On subsequent viewings, the visual style of the film also seems to signify how Nicole and Michel are trying to close the trap on a defenceless Christina.
The noir elements are also evident in that the main trio of the film are all aware that their actions are immoral, but they continue along a dark course anyway. Simone Signoret is, of course, revealed to be the femme fatale by the film’s end, but Paul Meurisse’s character is a homme fatale who destroys the lives of the two main female characters, and has probably destroyed the lives of many women before, as he was a philandering tennis champion. The scene in which Michel is on the train to Niort and a young woman looks at him with desire, pays testament to this fact, and also places him in a position of desire as a femme fatale normally is. He is the fulcrum upon which the two women’s desire and eventual destruction hinges. And like a femme fatale, he is eventually overcome by his own double crossing and deception.
The character of the private detective, Fitchet, is very Columbo like, and also reminds me of Superintendent Finsbury in Obsession (1949). The main characters underestimate him because he is old and unassuming. He makes no grand claims while he is solving the case, but he is methodical and his uncovering of Michel and Nicole’s plot is extremely satisfying.
The twists and turns of the making and legacy of Les Diabolique
Les Diabolique was remade a total of four times, as Games (1969), which also starred Signoret, Reflections of Murder (1974), House of Secrets (1993), and Diabolique (1996).
There was much media attention lavished on the film when Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack five years after the film was released, at the age of forty six.
Véra, Simone and Henri’s relationship onset mirrored that of Christina, Nicole and Michel’s, in that there was animosity between Simone and Henri, with Véra either mediating or making the situation worse, depending on how she felt that day. Simone also did not speak to Véra and Henri after the making of the film because he only paid her for eight weeks of work, as per her original contract, instead of the sixteen that shoot ran for. He also did not make allowances for a schedule clash between Simone’s work on the film and in a stage production of The Crucible, meaning that Simone was overworked by the time the film wrapped.
The original novel features a lesbian relationship between Christina and Nicole, which was not featured in the film.
Henri Clouzot apparently actually fed Véra rotten fish in order to make her distress in the dining hall scene more genuine.
Because Hitchcock had missed out on optioning their previous book, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote D’Entre les Morts for him, which he adapted into Vertigo.
Anyone else a big fan of the film? I’d love to hear your thoughts.