Film Review: “Les Diaboliques”, a Must-See Movie

We all have films we could watch over and over for the way they delight us and we’ve probably all seen a few that have required more than one viewing to fully appreciate but what about a film that enthralled us to such an extent that we wish we could have our memories erased just to see it again for the first time?

That’s how I feel about Les Diaboliques. God, how I envy anyone who is about to sit down and watch that for the first time!

If your exploration into French cinema stops with Amelie then you are indeed a lucky person. And I say lucky not because you’ve saved yourself time but because you have so much to discover. For among the many fine films to come out of France, which is after all where the motion picture was born, there is this perfect example of horror come noir come thriller.

Released in 1955, it was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s set in a slightly iffy boarding school run by the truly despicable Michel Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse) although the school is owned by his frail wife, Christina (Vera Clouzot, who happens to be the real-life wife of the director) who also teaches there. Michel is loathed by his colleagues as well as his pupils and being the kind of guy he is, he’s also messing around with another teacher called Nicole (Simone Signoret) but rather than the fancy woman and the wife despising each other, they enjoy a friendship of sorts based on the fact that they both hate Michel because of his abusive behaviour towards them. Nicole, being stronger in character than Christina, finally has enough of Michel and concocts a plan to do away with him thereby freeing them both from his tyrannical grip. Christina is reluctant at first to go so far as murder her husband but Michel pushes her buttons once too often and she later agrees to help Nicole. Under false pretences, they lure him away to a quiet location and after a brief struggle…

And I shall reveal no more because what ensues has to be some of the most masterful suspense ever put onto film and if you watch it with the lights out and the heating off, you’ll probably feel like you’re there. It’s shot in black and white, which adds austerity to its already bleak atmosphere and the tension builds steadily right to the very end. The acting is spot on – particularly Signoret, who mesmerises as the cheesed-off mistress and many little details caught by the director will send shivers of paranoia down your spine. The film ends with an instruction to the audience to not reveal the outcome and you would truly be depriving your friends of a cinematic treat if you did.

It’s hard to see how Hitchcock, who reportedly missed out on securing the films rights to the novel by mere hours, could have done any more to have us gripping our seats in fear. A true masterpiece and worthy of its inclusion in numerous lists of greatest films.

It was remade for a modern audience by Hollywood in 1996 with Sharon Stone playing the role of Nicole. It was also given a different ending and although I haven’t seen that version, I’ve read the reviews. They read as I expected.

Go on, treat yourself to the original French version and make me green! You won’t be disappointed. Just don’t tell your friends how it ends.