Les diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States, and variously translated as The Devils or The Fiends, is a chilling psychological horror that still stands up today. 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. The film was the 10th highest grossing film of the year with a total of 3,674,380 admissions in France.
A second-rate boarding school in Saint-Cloud, Hauts-de-Seine, in the Paris metropolitan area, is run by the tyrannical and mean Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), who is a really nasty piece of work, and the definition of the word ‘sadist’. The school is owned, though, by Delassalle’s teacher wife, the frail Christina (Vera Clouzot), who immigrated from Venezuela. Delassalle also has a relationship with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school. Rather than be enemies and at each other’s throats, the two women are shown to have a somewhat close relationship, primarily based on their apparent mutual hatred of Michel. Who is physically and emotionally abusive to both, as well as unkind to the children.
The boys hate him and the teachers seem to despise him, if he was to pass unexpectedly no one would miss him… As the movie opens, Nicole is pressing ahead with a plan she has already explained to Christina. It’s an elaborate scheme in which they will visit Nicole’s home in a distant village, lure Michael there, drown him in a bathtub, and secretly return to the school to dump the swine in the swimming pool, where he will seem to be a suicide or accident victim. However, Michael has a hard time staying dead, and Christia’s frail condition is being to get worse. And then Alfred Fichet, as a retired senior policeman now working as a private detective, gets involved with the incident, which may end up in Christina and Nicole being discovered.
The film’s plot reveal is a little bit clichéd by today’s standards, but this film is less about the twist and more about the atmosphere of the film. Strongly and expertly directed, intelligently written, well short, tightly edited & elegantly scored, Diabolique is a text book example of precision craftsmanship that immerses its viewers into this world of mystery and suspense. The boarding school is a nightmare in itself, this crumbling ancient building that seems to be less like a school and more like a prison, not only for the students but for Christina and Nicole.
Les Diaboliques is one of the tightest, pure suspense movies in cinematic history. A film that goes beyond anything Hitchcock made. Yes, some may grumble that the story starts out slowly, but as it moves on, peculiar things start to happen. This movie keeps you guessing in such a way, you are riveted to your seat, hoping for a quick resolution to the suspense. Yet, as the story unfolds, the suspense deepens. The final scene of the movie had me sitting back holding my breath. This movie does not offer cheap, jump scare tactics, which may horror films seem to do nowadays. Rather this film keeps you on the edge of your seat for the jump scare and the big ‘boo’ moment, but instead, it sneaks up on the viewer, which is far more effective in my opinion.
The film strengths lies in its two central performances, this was shot when Signoret in her heyday as French version of Marilyn Monroe. She makes a dramatic contrast to the petite Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife; he often frames little Christina with Nicole and Michael looming over her, which makes her look far more vulnerable and submissive. The relationship between the two women is very interesting because of their closeness. There is the possibility, just hinted at, that Nicole and Christina maybe lovers, or at least have romantcic feelings for each other, something very brave considering the films was made in 1955.
By blending together the elements of horror & mystery in a seamless manner, cleverly using its available resources to provide a sense of dread & uncertainty, and efficiently sustaining its tense atmosphere from start to finish, Diabolique is one of the finest examples of its genre that simply refuses to age despite being nearly 60 years old. On an overall scale, Diabolique remains one of world cinema’s most influential classics which promises & effectively delivers a cinematic experience one generally expects in Hitchcock’s thrillers, and comes as a must for all horror fans out there. It’s a shame that I haven’t come across this film earlier, this is now one of my all time favourites.