Monday 1 October 2007

Les Diaboliques (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot

Oh my goodness, I've waited to see this one. It resonates down the years both through presence and influence. When it's the chief reason why someone like Alfred Hitchcock would switch from his 'technicolour baubles' like North by Northwest to make something like Psycho, it's an important film. When it's a French black and white film from the fifties and it appears not only on the IMDb Top 250 but a whole host of Top 100 lists compiled by different authorities, it would appear to be a pretty damn good one too.

We're at the Delassalle Boarding School, a dilapidated establishment run by Michel Delassalle who is a real piece of work. He isn't just a martinet, he's vicious and brutal and callous, and he's apparently running the place on his wife's money. She's Christina Delassalle and she works at the school, as does Michel's mistress, Nicole Horner, where he flaunts each at the other. What this all leads up to is the bizarre situation where wife and mistress combine forces to kill him off just as everyone leaves for the holidays. Everything works as expected, but then the body inexplicably disappears.

The characters aren't just well defined here, that definition is integral to the progression of the story. The scene where Christina's mind is finally made up is a masterpiece of cause and consequence. Every word, every movement, is just perfect. The timing of everything is exactly right and the same almost unbearable suspense that director Henri-Georges Clouzot injected into The Wages of Fear is here too, relentless and magnetic. It's a simply brilliant demonstration of instilling competing emotions: we don't want to watch but we can't take our eyes off the screen.

The cast are impeccable. Simone Signoret is tough and forceful as Delassalle's mistress and the mastermind behind his murder. When we first meet her, she's wearing glasses to hide a black eye that he gave her, but she's a powerhouse compared to Christina. Vera Clouzot, the director's wife in real life, is even better as the victim's wife in the film. She's a former nun who believes in Hell and sees divorce as a deadly sin, yet finds her way into murder. Clouzot is awesome at alternating between hesitation and internal decision making torment with decisive action while the adrenaline rush is high.

Paul Meurisse is despicable as Delassalle himself, though never unbelievably so. It would have been so easy for him to overdo it but he restrains himself admirably. Then halfway through the film, we meet Fichet, an elderly commissioner of police played by Charles Vanel, who investigates with a subtle intellect reminiscent of a Columbo. I kept waiting for 'Just one more thing, Mme Delassalle...' There are also a couple of truly unforgettable scenes that rank way up there on any list. What a great film and one well worth waiting to see!

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