Sunday, November 20, 2016

Henri-Georges Clouzot | Les Diaboliques

no body there
by Douglas Messerli

Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (screenplay), Henri-Georges Clouzot (director) Les Diaboliques / 1955

One of the reasons that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 film Les Diaboliques remains so compelling today is that it lies to its audience, masquerading as a simple murder film while actually being a kind of toxic horror film / mystery.

If Venezuelan-born Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) is a wealthy heiress whose dream had been to run a boarding school just outside Paris, she is also a weak woman, who has let
her husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse), abuse her, evidently for years. She is also naïve in her beliefs, allowing her husband’s current mistress to engage her in something close to a lesbian
alliance wherein the two plan to kill Michel. And, although, she resists going through with the convoluted plot several times, ultimately she does successfully drug him (so she believes) and participates in his drowning in a bathtub.
      Despite the deviousness of Christina’s and Nicole’s (Simone Signoret) plan, in which they supposedly lure Michel to his lover’s apartment after his wife has demanded a divorce, the director somehow manages to allow his audience to side with their behavior, particularly given the fact that Michel has not only been brutal towards them but abuses the school children and his other colleagues as well. Indeed, it is a wonder that the whole school doesn’t, as the children do at one moment, rise up in utter rebellion against its official Principal.
      Clouzot manages, accordingly, to convince his audience that a murder is justified, making us cohorts, as it were, who continue—despite a few possible slip-ups—to hope that the women get away with their dirty deed; and, in fact, we are led, like the naïve Christina, to believe they have carried it our successfully.
       Gradually, however, the movie shifts to a kind of ghost-story as we wait for the body which they’ve thrown into the dirty swimming pool, to rise and be discovered. When some boys accidentally kick their soccer ball into the poll, threatening to send some into its waters to retrieve it, Nicole finally orders its draining. No body is discovered, and soon after, a young boy declares that the Principal—missing for several days—has confiscated his sling shot. A group school photo, showing us a shadowy figure above peering through the window, finally convinces us that something is horribly awry.
     The sudden appearance of a private detective shifts the film again, at first convincing us that he is on to the actions of the two women, but finally forcing us to question our basic assumptions, just in time for Michel to appear in the flesh, resulting in Christina’s heart attack and death. 
      Like her, too late we realize we have been tricked, that indeed Michel and Nicole have plotted her death. 
      In many senses, this rather clumsy plot twist is almost comic; in fact, Sidney Lumet used a similar plot in his comic film of 1982, Deathtrap. But Clouzot ends his film with almost mock-seriousness, warning viewers not to reveal the ending. 
     That Clouzot’s Brazilian born wife, Véra, died of a heart attack only five years later, much like her character in this film, brought the film new attention, while sending its director into a deep depression.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2016


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