Review / From the archives

Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques

Though it’s now revered as a classic, French suspense master Henri-Georges Clouzot’s schoolhouse murder mystery wallows in shallow shocks, as Derek Prouse wrote in our original 1955 review

Les Diaboliques
France 1954
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
With Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
116 mins | Cert 12A

In Les Diaboliques, one feels, Clouzot found certain elements of situation which absorbed him completely, and this absorption he has fully recommunicated on the screen. As might be expected of the director whose camera dwelt so ardently on the dead Manon’s hand sticking out of the desert sands [a reference to Clouzot’s 1949 Manon] (one of several details cut by the British censor), these elements are gruesome in the extreme. In fact, rarely if ever has such a wallow in the sickeningly macabre been passed for distribution in this country.

The sadistic schoolmaster of a provincial French school (crippling psychosis guaranteed to every boarder) includes among his staff his mistress, whom he beats (we are introduced to her with a black eye), and his wife, whom he has cowed to a frail, neurotic wreck. The mistress proposes to the wife a plan to murder the husband. This is done, and the body deposited in the school swimming pool. When, at the wife’s hysterical instigation, the pool is drained, the body is found to have vanished. Evidence accumulates to suggest that the husband – who has been drowned in the bath under our very eyes and even weighted down with a heavy ornament – is still alive.

To disclose more would be unfair. The crime itself is a piece of superior Grand Guignol, but the atmosphere of the school, soggy with sexual perversion as it is, remains passionless – and, ironically, immature in its all-too-knowing Frenchness. Any credible motivation of the final twist demands belief in a violent and obsessive attraction, but this is soft-pedalled to ensure the shock-revelation. The loss in characterisation leaves the essential fleurs du mal as very withered blooms indeed.

With so much to hide, any complexity of relationship between the guilty couple is again precluded, although their continued existence at the school forms the middle section of the film. All this remains static and uncompelling. No amount of cunning in presentation can disguise the fact that as a mystery story the film is not advancing and as psychological investigation it is mere pretence. The ladies remain as they were first presented, Simone Signoret big and dominating, Vera Clouzot small and harassed. But when the cat is finally let out of the bag, the director rolls up his sleeves, licks his lips, and extorts every ounce of sadistic horror from a situation that would have delighted Edgar Allan Poe. One feels, in fact, the piece might have gained much under cover of a nineteenth century setting. Perhaps there its ironies might have seemed less conscious, and a little less démodé the knowing cynicism of its corruption.

Derek Prouse, Sight & Sound, Winter 1955/56

‘Les Diaboliques’ is re-released from 18 March at venues around the UK

See also

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno reviewed by Catherine Wheatley (Film of the month, November 2009)

Lunacy reviewed by Michael Brooke (Film of the month, July 2007)

Under the influence: Robin Buss on Hitchcock’s influence on the French (May 2006)

The cage of reason: Kim Newman on Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (January 2000)

Last Updated: 22 Mar 2011