There are a plethora of articles, essays, and books devoted to uncovering the devices which make Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, Les Diaboliques, the model of suspense-thriller perfection. But, I cannot determine that it is any one thing that makes Clouzot’s masterpiece run like clockwork. Rather, it is the collective result of expertly fused elements that wind the viewer’s mind up to the point of breaking under the slight hand of suspense. Yes, it is true that there are many effective and entertaining thriller movies that have been made since the release of Les Diaboliques in 1955. However, there are very few films that can stand up to Clouzot’s tight construction; the sort of celluloid architecture which will ensure that his films remain intact and relevant for years to come.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of synergy is, “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.” If I were to apply this principle of synergy to the film, LesDiaboliques, then I would first have to pick out each individual component of the movie to understand why it is so powerful in its entirety. The original story, characters, setting, understanding of human psychology, application of pairs of opposites, and use of symbolism are superbly manipulated by the director, Clouzot, resulting in a nonpareil story of intrigue and murder.
The original story, Celle qui n’etait plus, was written by the French crime novel writing team, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcajac. Clouzot– who supposedly purchased the rights to the novel just hours before Hitchcock– worked with three other writers to arrive at the sordid screenplay for Les Diaboliques. The Boileau and Narcajac novel, which Clouzot worked from, involves a despicable man whose wife and mistress plot to murder him. So far the story on paper and the story on the screen match up. It is not until the conclusion of the narrative that marked differences separate the novel and the film. In Celle qui n’atait plus, it is revealed that the two women are secretly lesbian lovers and, there is no punishment dealt nor moral guilt suffered for the murder that they have committed. The story ends with the two women getting away with “the perfect crime.” To the audience, the finale of the Boileau and Narcajac narrative is delivered like a neatly wrapped present, tied up with a bow; the lecherous character is snuffed out and two people in love are able to be together.
The film version of the story offers no such pretty packaging. In the finale, Clouzot executes a double twist ending, as skilfully as a professional ice skater might pull off a double axle jump. But unlike an Olympic figure skater, Clouzot does not let the spectator down easily. The character the audience is naturally sympathizing with ends up the murder victim, the friend that we’re rooting for turns out to be a traitor, and the sadistic bully that we were so happy to see drowned gets up and walks away from the scene of the crime. The edge is never fully taken off the audience’s conscience which, in effect, leaves a viewer speculative, slightly uneasy, and biting his or her nails.
After the word fin appeared in the last movie frame, I had speculations of my own. What exactly was Simone Signoret’s character, Nicole, gaining by helping Michel kill his wife? Has Cristina transformed the film from a factual crime drama to a fantastic ghost story with her post-mortem interaction with a student? Why did Clouzot choose to alter the ending?
To begin the mystery of Nicole’s collusion with Michel, it helps to reverse the chronology of events. True, the two characters embraced at the end of the film and claimed that they could finally be together, but it didn’t seem to me that Michel was very charming at the beginning of the film. Not only was it implicated that he physically abused Nicole, but he mentally abused her through humiliation; rubbing his relationship with his wife in her face. Michel’s character was so repulsive that the original story’s resolution, where the two women get rid of their abuser and run away together, seems more plausible and just more….well…. fun! Furthermore, the gooey words that Nicole uttered to the guy who had most recently given her a black eye made my head spin in disbelief. After Cristina has been killed off, Nicole speaks to Michel in a nurturing tone, “My poor darling, you are all wet!… Here, get changed quickly…How you must have suffered! This time I was the one who was afraid.”
Nicole hardly seems like the type of woman who would put up with abuse and appeared to have enough gumption and self-esteem to stand up to people. But, just as in real life, a person’s actions are not always rational. After watching a few of Clouzot’s films one starts to get the notion that his characters are like case studies in a Human Psychology textbook, only with better clothes and sharper dialogue. Since Clouzot was obviously fascinated with human nature, perhaps it was a statement on the ability of some people to go back to their abuser again and again and find comfort in their violation because that is what they know. But, given Clouzot’s constant portrayals of seedy, wanton characters, it is more likely that he chose to showcase the ugliness and unpredictability of the human soul.
Aside from pulling a 180-degree turn-around on his character’s persona, Clouzot throws the audience off, yet again, by leaving little breadcrumbs of clues that Nicole and Christina could be romantically involved. In two separate scenes, it is implied that Nicole and Christina are sharing the same bed, and there was a particularly suggestive moment when Nicole comes up from behind Cristina, puts her hands on Cristina’s arms, and holds her firm, in a manner of reassurance. This is a posture between two characters that a viewer can see time and time again on film, but it is typically the physical arrangement of two lovers. Nicole and Cristina’s mutual humiliation and abuse create a natural bond between them, and it makes logical sense that they would find refuge in one another when they shared the malevolent hand of Michel. It may be that the subtle, yet evocative, signs that Nicole and Cristina are paramours is merely a device employed to lead the audience down the wrong path, or perhaps it was Clouzot’s way of paying homage to the Boileau and Narcajac’s original story. Either way, Clouzot creates a mysterious depth to his seemingly objectified characters.
To address the question of whether or not Cristina continued her legacy at the private boy’s school as a scholastically inclined poltergeist, I am going to look at the back-and-forth volley between the rational and the supernatural forces that Clouzot presented on screen. The disappearance of Michel’s body, the reappearance of his Prince of Wales suit, his post-murder appearance in class pictures, and the sound of his footsteps in the last climactic scene suggest two different culprits. Are these puzzling events the work of a blackmailer seeking revenge against Cristina and Nicole, or just Michel exercising his inherent duty as a meddling ghost in his afterlife? These two hypotheses are represented by the lead women in the film.
The audience can choose to follow the reasoning of Nicole: the science teacher and the rational voice, or Cristina: the ardent Catholic and the superstitious. Since neither rationale can be proven reliable until the end of the film, the viewer is forced to mentally engage with the story from beginning to end. The sequential uncertainty in the narrative gives the movie terrific momentum, and to inspire an audience’s thoughtfulness long after the film has ended, Clouzot plants one more seed of doubt in the mind of the spectator.
During the last few minutes of Les Diaboliques the story appears to be wrapped up; Michel and Nicole’s scheme has been uncovered, Cristina’s dead body has been taken away and the Delasalle school is closing down. However, the hapless student, Moinet, is seen breaking another window with the slingshot that had earlier been confiscated by Michel. When one of the teachers asks the boy how he came into possession of the slingshot once again, Moinet answers, “Mme. Delasalle…she opened the door gave me back the slingshot.” The boy goes on to claim, “She said, ‘This is for you, Moinet. Have fun.’”
The teacher, certain of Moinet’s self-induced hallucinations, answers, ”You know that she’s dead and her body has been taken away today.” Where after, Moinet attempts once more to defend his claim, “She’s not dead. She came back.” Moinet pouts. Despite Moinet’s mischievous nature, his account of Michel’s appearance at the school earlier in the film proved accurate, so it would be logical to believe the boy’s latest allegation. Just when the audience is content to believe that the film is a crime-thriller, Clouzot points to the fantastic, thus throwing the viewer off balance and disturbing the inertia of the ending. “The genre is defined as the moment of hesitation between the supernatural and the uncanny. It is that moment which spans the gap between rational explanation and the irrational one: it is an ephemeral bridge which disrupts the flow of the test and suspends the reader’s/spectator’s imagination in mid-air.” (Hottell, p. 255)
The juxtaposition of the fantastical and the factual is just one example of Clouzot’s treatment of pairs of opposites in the film; a method that enabled him to create tension on the screen. Whether it was good and evil or scientific and supernatural forces that were in conflict, the constant back-and-forth pull between these opposites created uneasiness, and anxiety and is the perfect recipe for suspense. Nicole and Cristina represent one of the boldest examples of paired-off opposites in the film. Clouzot essentially traps these two opposing personalities in a movie frame and lets their variance in nature create interest and contrast both visually and conceptually.
If you were to break down the appearance of both Nicole and Christina, it is easy to see that their clothes and their manner further cement the archetype which they represent; the feminine and the masculine. The contours of Cristina’s clothing are delicate and girlish. She wears her hair in long braids like a young schoolgirl while projecting fragility and vulnerability in her manner. She prays and lights candles of devotion to the icons in her bedroom, putting her hopes and intentions in the hands of ethereal beings. Cristina embodies the classical idea of femininity. Nicole, on the other hand, dons angular clothing and a short, cropped hair-do. Her speech is dry and abrupt and her posture is rigid. The way that she tosses her cigarettes aside indicates that she is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t rely on the favor of God to get what she wants. Rather, she takes her fate into her own hands and assumes a masculine aggression.
There is a fantastic scene that exhibits the masculine and the feminine assigned roles of Nicole and Cristina quite brilliantly. The two women are hatching a plan to kill Michel by the swimming pool, and if one froze the film and looked at the frame where the two women are side by side, one would be amazed by Clouzot’s mastery of composition. Like a pre-raphealite painting, everything you need to know about these two characters can be understood by the symbolism, colors, and layout which exists in the arrangement. Here you see the women perfectly divided, in the scene, by the pool slide pole which stands between them. On the left-hand side Christina is wrapped in a soft, white shawl and on the right-hand side Nicole is wearing a severely tailored cardigan and a black dress, thus cementing the idea of the masculine and the feminine. Furthermore, Christina faces the camera with her innocent, doe-like eyes wide open and Nicole angles her body away from the camera with her heavy sunglasses shrouding her eyes. In that single composition, the astute viewer may determine that Christina is open in her demeanor, while Nicole hides her intentions and is not so easily led. This was, at least, what Clouzot wanted the audience to think about his characters. Obviously, by the end of the film, our understanding of each character is flipped on its head, for it was Cristina who had the most resolve. And Nicole, for all of her show of swagger, was pliable and weak.
Clouzot’s exaggerated characters might appear to be over-simplified versions of a stereotype, but the plastic appearance of Michel the masochist, or Cristina the meek is more like the disguise used in a masquerade. The audience becomes invested in the identity of each character, which allows a viewer to anticipate the character’s next move, based on his or her understanding of human nature. From childhood on we are taught by faerie tales and fables to interpret a person’s essentia based on their looks, their actions, and their speech. Thus, we form our opinion of each character as soon as they step onto the screen and hold onto that first impression for the remainder of the film.
However, Clouzot was not producing a faerie tale. He was not interested in instilling valuable lessons in his audience, nor was he concerned with morals and ethics. To thrill and simply entertain the audience, Clouzot made us believe in his characters and then, at the end of the film, had each one take off their mask and reveal their true identity. The sweet-tempered princess was really capable of murder, the pushy step-sister was really a romantic woman in love, and the evil prince was able to kill off the most sympathetic person in the story.
This is hardly a faerie tale ending where good and evil are clearly defined, and justice is served to the wicked. Clouzot touched on the true lesson which should be taught about human beings; that people are multi-dimensional and one never knows their capabilities or their hearts until they are tested. “It may be tempting to think of Clouzot as a belated Friederich Nietzsche, looking back sardonically on the intellectual and moral pretensions of the nineteenth century.” (Moon, p.268)
I find Clouzot’s deviation from classical forms of narrative refreshing. By our twenty-first century standards of books and film, we are quite used to shocker endings and amoral heroes and heroines, but in 1955, when Les Diaboliques was filmed, nothing like it had ever been seen before. The French film even achieved popularity with American audiences, which was the first for a foreign film to take the box office by storm. Clouzot’s film could be held responsible for America’s first real awareness that there were fantastic movies waiting for them outside of Hollywood. Les Diabolique was like a beacon of light for international film; an eerie and ghoulish light. Despite the film’s popularity with average theatergoers, the new-wave French film snobs considered Clouzot’s work to be dated and old, or “cinema de papa.” However, it is ironic to consider that the experimental films, so praised by the nouvelle vague during the 1950s and 1960s, retain more of a dated feel to the twenty-first-century viewer than does Clouzot’s classic. An avant-garde film from 1955 can easily be recognized as the product of a certain film movement, but Les Diaboliques plays out in a timeless manner. The focus of the film is never on a time period. The viewer is instead enraptured by the unpolished and fallible figures which sully the screen and swept away on a wave of mystery.
Of course, were it not for the estimable actors and seemly set, the mesmerizing rhythm of the story would not work. Simone Signoret sheds her blonde-bombshell skin to reveal a tough vixen. Her speech is an interesting combination of languor and venom; reminding me of a sleepy snake that might bite if you get too close. The way she dangles cigarettes on her lips she could be mistaken for a truck driver, but Signoret’s underlying sexiness reminds the audience why the character Michel might kill to be with her. Vera Clouzot (wife of Henri-Georges Clouzot) was not a seasoned actor like her co-stars, but her inexperience on the screen enhanced the timidity and nervousness in her movements and the vulnerability in her voice. The fact that Vera was not a confident movie star with a burgeoning ego meant that her character, Cristina, came off as genuine.
The sets themselves take on a character of their own. Whether it is the dingy school where the walls appear to be creeping in on you, or Nicole’s impossibly cluttered home in Niort, each setting conveys a feeling of oppressive decay. In the case of Cristina’s room, the heavy wooden walls and her corner of devotion, complete with icons and candles, cause one to imagine they are smelling incents in a Catholic cloister. Water features are especially important to the scenery of Les Diaboliques since they symbolize both stagnation and purification. Shots of a murky swimming pool remind the viewer that scum is teeming in the water as well as in the Delessalle private school. Later, running water in a sink is used to wash away the evidence of drugged whiskey, and water symbolizes purification for Cristina. Most memorably, water is brimming over the sides of a tub that contains a dead body, and water is used to signify the character drowning in their sins.
The way that Clouzot melds both the characters and the set together is quite genius. For example, in the opening scene where we first meet Nicole outside of her classroom door, our eye is led to her by a group of teachers coming forward from the background. In the foreground, a train of students leads a path of action around Nicole and right in between the stationary teachers. Clouzot encourages the viewer’s eye to explore every depth of celluloid, with glimmers of life in the foreground, middle-ground , and background. It is almost like watching fish in a fishbowl, but instead of peering into a round bowl, you get to spy into a rectangular film frame.
Perhaps most important to the synergistic breakdown of Les Diaboliques is the creator and manipulator of all of the components which make up the film. It is Clouzot’s arrangement of the set and characters and dialogue which makes the movie outstanding. If the characters, details in a scene, and dialogue were to appear out of order, then their impact would be marginal. Clouzot had the reputation of a difficult director to work with and was even capable of cruelty on the set, but the end result of the behind-the-camera tyranny was beautiful.
It was reported that Clouzot had stamped on Brigitte Bardot’s foot during the filming of La Verite (1960) to encourage her tears during a particularly emotional scene. When physical abuse did not elicit the temper that he wanted on camera, Clouzot next tried the route of emotionally abusing Bardot to get the results he desired. Clouzot had taken Bardot aside and confided in her that “people had a low opinion of her” and that “her life was a mess.” After her demoralizing experience, Bardot was able to put on a great show of tears for the camera and her performance garnered her a round of applause. “Such stories, which became legendary in the film industry, earned Clouzot the label of a sadist. But, as he would wryly observe, when his collaborators were praised for their contributions to his films, he was quickly forgiven.” (Thompson, p.) It is difficult to condone Clouzot’s methods, but it is even more difficult to deny him of his achievements.
During the filming of Les Diabolique, it was rumored that Clouzot actually served rotten fish to the actors in the scene where the teachers and students are having lunch. In this case, their reactions of revulsion were real. Michel’s, and subsequently Clouzot’s, order for Cristina to swallow the rancid fish is even more painful to watch if you consider that not everything seen on the screen is acting. To sum up the festering state of the entire movie, Nicole pipes in, “Disgusting. Some things are hard to swallow and I’m not talking about the fish.”
If an actor’s performance was not to Clouzot’s liking, he would make them re-do the scene over and over again until he was satisfied. Because of Clouzot’s zeal for perfection, the filming for Les Diabolique went well over the eight weeks scheduled, reaching a total of sixteen weeks. This was problematic for Simone Signoret because she was supposed to be rehearsing for the stage version of The Crucible and Clouzot refused to rearrange the shoot schedule for her. Stuck in a contract to finish the film, and bound to rehearsals for a play, Signoret got very little sleep the last few weeks of the filming of Les Diaboliques. When the shoot was finally wrapped up, former friends, Signoret and Clouzot, were no longer on speaking terms. “I knew that I was getting myself into a hell of a time,” Signoret said, “But I had no idea it was going to be as wretched as sixteen weeks.” (Ferrara, TCM)
Aside from governing the actors on the set, Clouzot would ensure that his vision for the film layout was fully realized by drawing out elaborate storyboards, much like his rival, Hitchcock. Clouzot’s grasp of converting a narrative from text to a visual feast for the imagination was profound, and he felt that the best way to convey, or more likely control, his artistic understanding was to lay out a sort of blueprint for the movie. One would imagine that Clouzot had a foundation in architecture, but in his early adulthood he actually first sought to join the Navy (but his ill health had him disqualified) and later pursued a career in law, followed by a short stint in politics. Finally, he tapped into the world of movies in 1931, working as a scriptwriter for film producer Alphonse Osso. But before Clouzot’s career in film could take off, he hit a speed bump, so to speak.
Stricken with a tuberculosis-related illness, Clouzot spent four years confined to a Sanitarium. This might have appeared like a terrible setback, but his invalid state afforded Clouzot the opportunity to pour over mountains of books; French literature, crime thrillers, and dramas. By the time he recovered and resumed his screenwriting career in 1938, he was the best-read screen writer in Europe. Clouzot’s ability to recognize a film-worthy story and his talent for transforming words into to images was largely due to his years of being bound to his bed with nothing but a book for a friend.
In 1942, Clouzot met his chance to make a full-length film. However, his debut as a director was to cause him grief years later. His film, L’asassin Habite au 21, was shot during the German occupation of France during WWII, and the Continental Film Company, which he worked for, was under German control. After the war ended, his association with the German film industry resulted in his being banned from making films for two years. Critics claimed that Clouzot was a German collaborator, but really Clouzot was apolitical, just as his ethics were amoral. Clouzot did not take sides in the war. Rather, he found opportunities from both friend and foe to follow his passion for thrilling audiences. On his making of the film Le Diaboliques Clouzot remarked,“ I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts- The child who hides our head under the bed covers and begs, ‘daddy, daddy, frighten me.’” (Stafford, TCM) Clouzot never sought to instruct, nor make friends on the set, and he certainly had no motive to impress the politically correct. His only purpose was to make a damn good film, and to that end, I believe he succeeded.
French Film guide. “Les Diabolique” (1955)
Ebert, Roger. “Diabolique” Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot. Rogerebert.com.
Sun-TimesNews Group. February 17, 1995
Ferrara, Greg. “Diabolique” (1955) Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot
Hottell, Ruth A. “The Diabolic Dialogic: Les Diaboliques by H.G. Clouzot”
Literature Film Quarterly 1996, Vol. 24, Issue 3
Moon, Perry. “Une Peinture Morale: Intertextuality in Clouzot’s LesDiaboliques”
The Trustees of the Columbia University
The Romantic Review, volume 103. January 1, 2012.
Stafford, Jeff. “Diabolique” (1955) Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot
Thompson, David. “The Devil od Detail”
Sight and Sound 00374806, volume 19, issue 12. December 2009