Combustible Celluloid
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With: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault, Thérèse Dorny, Noël Roquevert, Yves-Marie Maurin, Georges Poujouly, Georges Chamarat, Jacques Varennes, Robert Dalban, Jean Lefebvre
Written by: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, Frédéric Grendel, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 117
Date: 01/29/1955

Diabolique (1955)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Drown by Law

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At one point Henri-Georges Clouzot was viewed as one of the top French directors, and certainly it can be argued that Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955) are superbly crafted thrillers. But many critics eventually reacted against his popularity and his reputation fell from grace. Now there's a groundswell attempting to re-establish him as one of the greats. Personally, I'm on the fence. I agree that Clouzot's handling of the plot twists in Diabolique was unique for its time, and has inspired an infinite number of copies (including an ill-fated 1996 American remake). But the only other argument for his talent was the fact that he was so meticulous and demanding behind the scenes. As well made as his films are, they seem to lack the kind of personality that exists in other French thrillers directed by the likes of Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Truffaut, or Claude Chabrol.

That kind of nitpicking aside, we're left with Diabolique, which -- if you haven't seen it and you're not familiar with the novel or the many remakes and ripoffs -- still has the power to grip and shock you. Indeed, I had seen Diabolique about 20 years earlier and had forgotten the outcome, and with this second viewing the movie had me in its clutches once again.

The story is set at a boys' school, and Clouzot does a marvelous job of establishing the ramshackle, off-kilter setting wherein the teachers gossip and complain, the headmaster skimps on good food and wine, and no one seems particularly happy (although it seems to be a rather expensive, upper class school). The headmaster, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is something of a monster; the movie suggests that he emotionally and/or physically abuses both his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot) and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). What's more, the frail, sickly wife -- with her pigtails -- knows about the stern, bossy blonde mistress.

Though these two should hate each other, they seem to hate the husband even more, so they team up and devise a plan to kill him. Their plan involves driving to Nicole's apartment over a long holiday weekend, luring Delassalle there, drugging him, drowning him in the bathtub, bringing his body back to the school, and dumping it in the swimming pool, where it will be discovered and considered an accident. However, when the pool is actually drained, no body appears. Worse, strange things begin happening around the school.

Clouzot's icy direction keeps the plot tightly, perfectly on track, though he allows room for offbeat little moments that only ramp up the suspense. Two male teachers constantly add their commentary to the situation, always managing to say something that drives poor Christina around the bend. What's more, a police commissioner turns up and begins cheerfully poking around. It's almost as if, like Hitchcock, Clouzot is playing the audience like a piano. But unlike Hitchcock, there's a certain lack of joy or glee; what's more, Clouzot's inner demons do not seem exposed here. We know why Hitchcock made his movies, but we're not exactly sure what drove Clouzot.

Clouzot adapted Diabolique from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also wrote the novel that Hitchcock would later adapt into Vertigo (they reportedly wrote it specifically for Hitch). Comparing the two films finds them both skillful and suspenseful, but Vertigo has that sense of personal obsession that makes it great. Diabolique is something else: great pulp, or a great exercise in style.

The Criterion Collection, which released Diabolique on DVD all the way back in 1999 (as well as a laserdisc before that), has remastered and updated it for 2011, with a new Blu-Ray release (with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack) as well as a new DVD. It includes a selected-scene commentary by scholar Kelley Conway, introductions/interviews with Serge Bromberg (director of the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno) and critic Kim Newman, and a trailer. Critic Terrence Rafferty's essay graces the liner notes booklet.

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