Back to School: Diabolique

Famously Henri-Georges Clouzot’s school-yard chiller Diabolique closes with a placard begging the viewer not to reveal the ending of the movie. Unlike most spoiler warnings, this request is not made because the movie’s magic falls apart once the reveals are made. Even on my fourth viewing this film managed to capture my attention and rope me into its mystery, and in fact made me appreciate more just how well Clouzot crafts his thriller to make the story work. But there is no doubt that Clouzot is right that the best viewing is the one where you have no idea how the story ends.

The movie opens at a rundown boarding school, in which the teachers are less than stellar, the food barely edible, and the headmaster is a tyrannical boor of a man. Michel (Paul Meurisse) has little love for children or their well-being and runs the school strictly as a way to make money (unsuccessfully). He openly abuses and puts down his frail wife Christina (Vera Clouzot) even though she is the owner of the school. And so awful is his personality that Christina has found solace and comradery with another teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) with whom Michel formerly had an open affair with. The two women conspire to rid themselves of Michel’s tyranny once and for all by luring Michel off-property and drowning him. Though the plan is fraught with danger they succeed and dump his body in the derelict and unused pool on school property so that it will look like an accident. All goes to plan or so it seems. Then the body disappears and it slowly becomes apparent that they may not have gotten away with the crime at all.

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From the moment the body disappears, the tension goes up several notches and with it the strain on Christina’s well-established weak heart also reaches dangerous levels. Michel’s ghostly presence continues to haunt the school and the sudden appearance of an investigator with mixed allegiances threatens to unearth their diabolical schemes. All this combines to create a film that is tense and suspenseful from beginning to end.

Anchoring this film is the effective performance of the central trio of Michel, Nicole, and Christina. Vera Clouzot as Christina especially does a fantastic job anchoring the movie as the individual who stands to gain or lose the most from her murderous scheme with Nicole. She is a gentle and highly religious person who is highly hesitant to dump the abusive Michel not just because she is afraid of Michel but because it goes against her religious beliefs. She is only convinced to get rid of Michel not because of his umpteenth abuse of her but because Michel’s greed and cutting corners are starting to hurt the students under her care. Though the students spend most of the time on the periphery, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that getting rid of Michel is less about the personal benefit for her but rather the larger benefit it will be for the students under her care. It is also clear that Christina is the one person in this dilapidated school that the students show some care and affection towards.

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Aiding Christina in her task is Nicole, whose relationship with Christina is as natural onscreen as it is bizarre in actual terms. Though under normal circumstances it would seem odd for a man’s wife and lover to band together, such is the vitriol that spews from Michel that it is entirely believable. And together the two form a formidable duo functioning more like spouses than any relationship they ever had with Michel. Their relationship is the most intriguing part of the film as the dynamics continue to change between them as their plot first succeeds and then slowly unravels.

But the true strength of this movie is the tightly wound restraint that Clouzot uses to weave his tale. The pace of this movie is methodical and the timing is perfect as each revelation, twist, and plot point unfolds to maximal impact. Although this is famously the screenplay that got away from Alfred Hitchcock, Clouzot does his best Hitchcock impression and largely succeeds in building a constant atmosphere of tension. The climax especially is so pitch perfect namely because Clouzot fills so much of it with complete and absolute silence so that every pin drop is heard. Diabolique is ultimately a masterclass in atmospheric suspense, and a true showcase of a director at the peak of his abilities.

Rating: ★★★★½

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