Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi
There are few who can claim to have beaten Alfred Hitchcock to the punch at anything, but French director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, proudly can.
When Clouzot decided to buy the filming rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel, Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More), he beat out the next highest bidder, the master of suspense himself, by only a matter of hours, and in Clouzot’s subsequent movie adaptation, we can fully understand their mutual interest.
Serpentine, bitter, manipulative, and cruel to an uncompromising extreme, Les Diaboliques is a masterpiece in its own right, but will be forever known as the greatest film that Hitchcock almost made.
At an all-boys boarding school, two female teachers struggle to survive under the oppressive and barbarous management of the despotic headmaster, Michel (Paul Meurisse).
Things are further complicated when we realize that one of them, Christina (Véra Clouzot), is the headmaster’s wife, while the other, Nicole (Simone Signoret), is his mistress.
With an uncommonly close friendship, especially considering their relation to Michel, the two collude to free themselves of his overbearing regime, masterminding a plot to kill him.
But what initially goes according to plan quickly takes a turn for the worse as strange and unexplainable events exacerbate the two’s already prevalent paranoia.
To call the film Hitchcockian would be obvious, but what the film really is is Machiavellian, and that’s precisely why it succeeds. The film’s miserable atmosphere is unmistakable, manipulating the audience into siding with the Nicole and Christina’s muderous aspirations.
From the beginning, we see a sadistic and volatile Michel physically abusing and openly cheating on his wife. We immediately get a sense of the dread and hopelessness that’s deeply rooted into lives of the two, and the inexcusable acts of an egomaniacal man.
The women, on the other hand, are girls living in a man’s world (note the fact that they are working in an all-boys school) and face societal restraints that make the murder a necessity.
Christina, suffering from battered wife syndrome, is a deeply religious woman that’s too reticent and meek to even demand a divorce. If she does, she will be spurned from society and lose her job, so when Nicole comes up with the idea to kill Michel, Clouzot, remarkably, makes murder the preferable alternative. In fact, he even makes us cheer and applaud their cruel intentions.
But not only is it morally ambiguous, the film is also extremely ambiguous in terms of narrative. Without spoiling too much, Clouzot weaves an intricate and tangled web of doubt, paranoia, and suspicion with sinister dexterity, and as the knot tightens with a palpable unease, it unravels into a marvelous and deleterious ending that’s as brutal and abhorrent as it is surprising and unpredictable. With a seeming disregard for levity, Clouzot never shies away from the diabolic potential of the story, and because of that, Les Diaboliques will inspire feelings of morose and sullen uncertainty that will last long after its final frame.
– Justin Li
Les Diaboliques is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website