Les Diaboliques aka Diabolique – France, 1955 – overview

Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and The Fiends in the UK, is a 1955 French psychological thriller film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. It is based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus (“She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

The story blends elements of thriller and horror, with the plot focusing on a woman and her husband’s mistress who conspire to murder the man; after the crime is committed, however, his body disappears, and a number of strange occurrences ensue. 

Diabolique poster

The story takes place in a second-rate boarding school run by the tyrannical and mean Michel Delassalle (Meurisse). The school, though, is owned by Delassalle’s teacher wife, the frail Christina (Clouzot), and Delassalle flaunts his relationship with Nicole Horner (Signoret), a teacher at the school. Rather than antagonism, the two women are shown to have a somewhat close relationship, primarily based on their apparent common hatred of Michel, who is physically and emotionally abusive to both.

Unable to stand his mistreatment any longer, Nicole devises a plan. Though hesitant at first, Christina ultimately consents to help Nicole. Using a threatened divorce to lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment building in a remote village several hundred kilometers away, Christina sedates him. The two women then drown him in a bathtub and dump his body in the school’s neglected swimming pool.

When his corpse floats to the surface, they think it will appear to have been an accident. Almost everything goes according to their plans until the body fails to surface, and Michel’s corpse is nowhere to be found when the pool is drained.

Nicole sees in the paper that the police found a corpse. Christina goes to the morgue and learns it is not Michel’s body. There she meets Alfred Fichet (Vanel), a retired private detective. He gets involved in the case, much to Nicole’s chagrin…

A 2011 dual format UK release from Arrow Academy featured a HD transfer of the film from a new restoration of the original negative. The Criterion Collection has now released a Blu-ray version featuring the same digital restoration and the following special features:

• Uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• Selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway
• New video introduction by Serge Bromberg, codirector of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno
• New video interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman
• Original theatrical trailer
• An essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty

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Reviews:

“In essence, Les Diaboliques is one of the greatest suspense films of all time. The film mingles aspects of moral decrepitude, revenge, a well-crafted ballet of appearance and reality, and the intricacies of the evil mind and how it never takes a rest.” Pedro Blas Gonzalez, Senses of Cinema

” …there are chillingly distinctive qualities to it running throughout the film: a sardonic, relentlessly cynical sense of humour and an indefatigable misanthropy that touches every relationship and colours every character, and which leaves the viewer creeped out just as much by the profound, all-encompassing pessimism at its heart, as by the director’s haunting use of painterly chiaroscuro lighting and the cobweb-y, careworn gloom of much of the film’s setting.” Black Gloves, Horrorview.com

“European horror may have gone quiet again for a while after Les Diaboliques, but its flinty, cold-hearted example would be by no means forgotten. Quite apart from its enduring power as a well-nigh perfect horror thriller, the film remains significant for the impact it had on Alfred Hitchcock […] The film’s influence extended well beyond Psycho, however. Not only would its plot mechanics be replicated all over the world, but its sleazy, verging on fly-blown atmosphere would sink deep into the fabric of European horror.” Jonathan Rigby, Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema

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“It is an extremely clever film, and very horrid indeed. Clouzot’s juggling with delayed horror is brilliant; Armand Thirard’s black and white photography a thing of subtle lights and unholy shadows. The horridest shock of all is kept for kept for the very end.” The Observer, 4 December 1955

“Vulgar, nasty – and French.” R.D. Smith, Tribune magazine, 1955

Cast and characters:

  • Simone Signoret as Nicole Horner
  • Véra Clouzot as Christina Delassalle
  • Paul Meurisse as Michel Delassalle
  • Charles Vanel as Alfred Fichet
  • Jean Brochard as Plantiveau
  • Pierre Larquey as M. Drain
  • Michel Serrault as M. Raymond
  • Thérèse Dorny as Mme. Herboux
  • Noël Roquevert as M. Herboux
  • Georges Poujouly as Soudieu

diaboliques-lb

Wikipedia | IMDb

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