His 1955 suspense Diabolique concerns a boarding school headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, wife of the director) and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Both women show a rightful disdain for the tyrannical Michel. Their plan: drug and drown Michel in Nicole’s bathtub, dump his corpse into the school’s swimming pool and make it all seem like an accident. No evidence. Simple as.
And then the pool is drained, with no trace of Michel to be found. Where is Michel? Have the women gone mad? What is and isn’t imagined?
It’s at this plot point where the story truly begins and where director Clouzot out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock. (The story goes that Clouzot bought the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel mere hours before Hitchcock could. Fact or legend, Diabolique does have a title card during the end credits that reads, “Don’t ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don’t tell them what you saw,” just as Hitchcock would similarly advise his audience to do when Psycho was released five years later.)
Like any film with a superb twist (not a spoiler; the ending is famous), it’s better to leave as much unsaid as possible. What should be noted, though, is that Clouzot’s film is so clever in how it fools the audience. Unlike, say, Psycho (not to pick on it), Diabolique truly tinkers with the viewer’s mind on repeat viewings, forcing them to second- and triple-guess each time around.
Aiding to maintain the atmosphere of Diabolique is the eerie black-and-white cinematography by Armand Thirard, who creates absolute dread with equal measure both by the swimming pool at noon and that bathroom at midnight. Likewise, the three leads--particularly Signoret, who up to this point was more sex symbol than femme fatale--all help to keep the audience on their toes and clutching the armrest up until those final haunting minutes.
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, which I called “one of the greatest of thrillers…not one minute of which is wasted.” The same sentiments belong with Diabolique, one of the quintessential examples of its genre. If nothing else, nobody in their right mind who has seen Diabolique has taken a bath since.
Selected-scene commentary (44:30): Divided into three sections (“Setup,” “Additional clues,” “The finale”), this track features Kelley Conway (author of Chanteuse in the City: The Realist Singer in 1930s French Film) discussing a handful of scenes from the film. Like all selected-scene commentaries, it’s hard not to think why the contributor couldn’t sit down for the entire film. Still, Conway’s thoughts are professional insightful, providing a rounded look at Diabolique and its director.
Kim Newman (15:45): In this piece shot in 2010, novelist and film critic Newman “discusses how the groundbreaking Diabolique has influenced countless horror films.” Newman also dissects the film’s structure, its release and Alfred Hitchcock’s career at the time/his attempt to outdo Clouzot.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 16-page booklet with an essay titled “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by film critic Terrence Rafferty.