Les Diaboliques

If you haven’t seen it:

les-diaboliques-posterLes Diaboliques is the story of the Les and his unfortunate surname.

Not really.  It’s French for “The Fiends”.

Les Diaboliques is a foreign-language Hitchcock-style thriller (some might say horror) about two women who plot the downfall of their mutual lover, the sadistic headmaster of a provincial boarding school.

It is one of those films that is more enjoyable the less you know about it.  I would recommend not reading any more reviews and definitely not reading any further on this page.  Come back when you have seen it.

 

If you have seen it:

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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.

Plot:

Michel, the cruel and sadistic headmaster of a run-down boarding school, openly cheats on his wife Christina with one of the teachers, Nicole, and is violent and abuse to both of them.  The two women however, have become friends (and possibly, the movie suggests, lovers), and they come up with a plan to murder him and make it look like an accident.

les-diaboliques-poison-whiskey

Whiskey and soda. Easy on the soda.

Luring him to a house in a remote village, they ply him with whiskey, drug him, and drown him in the bath. Then, they take his body (hidden in a wicker basket) back to school grounds and dump it in the school’s murky swimming pool, so that it will look like he fell in, drunk, and drowned.  The two women meanwhile, will have an alibi, as they were known to be in the village at the time the coroner will say death occurred.

For the next few days Christina and Nicole wait for Michel’s corpse to be discovered, but it does not float to the surface.  Christina contrives a reason to have the pool drained, and the body is not there!

When a body is found in a nearby river, Christina thinks this must be Michel, and goes to the police to identify it, but it is not her husband after all.  Christina’s actions however, draw the attention of a retired detective called Alfred, who decides to investigate further.

les-diaboliques-ghoul

“Could you pass me a towel please?”

Christina becomes more and more nervous, and mysterious events start to occur – one of the schoolboys claims to have seen Michel in the school, and Michel’s face appears in a recent photograph.  Christina begins to fall apart; she and Nicole argue, and Christina confesses all to Alfred, who decides to investigate further before taking any action.  Later that night, there are more sinister events in the school, terrifying Christina, and eventually she sees Michel for herself. His body is lying in a bathtub, and when it stands up and looks at her, Christina’s heart fails, and she dies.

But Michel is not really dead. Nicole reappears and speaks to him – it is revealed that in fact it was she and Michel who had been plotting to kill Christina all along.  They knew she had a weak heart and that the stress and shock of a murder and a haunting would kill her.  Unfortunately for them though, they reckoned without Christina’s confession to Alfred.  The ex-detective steps out of the shadows and reveals he has been watching.  He arrests the pair of them.

The final scene shows the school is being closed down. The little boy who said he saw the ghost of Michel is at it again, now claiming that he has seen the ghost of Christina.

 

Trivia Trish Says:

  • The director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was known as “The French Hitchcock”.  His other great film was The Wages of Fear.
  • Alfred Hitchcock himself had wanted to make Les Diaboliques, but when he called to buy the rights for the novel it was based on, he found that Clouzot had beaten him to it, by just a few hours.
les-diaboliques-alfred

“Just one more thing…”

  • It has been said that the character of Alfred, with his bumbling demeanour, scruffy clothes, but sharp mind, were the inspiration of Peter Falk’s Columbo.
  • As well as a couple of made-for-TV remakes, the film was remade in 1996 in Hollywood, as Diabolique, with Sharon Stone. It was not well received.

Steve Sunday Says:

A good old-fashioned scary movie.  I enjoyed this.

Unfortunately, I already knew the big twist at the end before I saw the movie. A few years ago I read an article in a movie magazine entitled “Top Ten Shocking Movie Twists of All Time”, and up there with The Sixth Sense and Fight Club was a little foreign black and white movie that I had never heard of called Les Diaboliques.  The writer of the article seemed to think that because the movie was over fifty years old it was okay to talk about the ending, so he did.  I wish he hadn’t.  If I had not read that article I think I would have enjoyed the movie even more, but then again if I had not read the article I might not actually have ever watched it at all.

les-diaboliques-hitchcock

The director wanted to be “The Master of Suspense” so badly, he even threw in a Hitchcock cameo.

Would I have guessed the twist?  I like to think I probably would have done, as many modern movies have had similar twists, so we are now used to the idea.  Perhaps I might not have done if I had not known there was a twist to be looking out for – that is why I did not mention it in my introduction at the beginning of this page.  Most reviewers don’t seem to be able to stop themselves from doing just that though, which I why I also recommended avoiding other reviews.

I should mention, when I say “the big twist at the end” I am referring to the revelation that Michel is not dead, but in cahoots with Nicole.  The reason I feel the need to clarify is that some fans of the movie think that there is in fact a further twist after that – they say that the little boy’s statement that he saw Christina suggests that in fact Chistina is not dead after all.  Did she fake he own death to entrap Michel and Nicole?  Perhaps she was in cahoots with Alfred, who had cracked the case earlier that day and advised her how to proceed? That would explain why he failed to intervene to save Christina?  Well, for me, that is a step too far – I think a more likely explanation is that the little boy is just lying.  I think the director was trying to leave us with a tantalisingly ambiguous ending, but the final twist he was hinting at does not really make sense (cf Basic Instinct).

Getting back to the main twist though, can we say that that stand up to close scrutiny?  Well, as this “deleted scene” reveals, perhaps not:

Deleted Scene:

In which Michel and Nicole discuss their evil plan.

Michel:  So how long do I have to hold my breath in the bath?

Nicole:  Not long.  She will probably not want to watch, and leave the room.

Michel:  Probably?

Nicole:  Almost certainly.

Michel:  Well..okay, if you’re sure.  I’m a bit worried about having to stay in the bath all night though.  Won’t it be cold?  What if I start to shiver and she hears my teeth chattering?  What if I get cramp?

Nicole:  Oh, don’t be such a baby.

Michel:  What if I fall asleep and start snoring.

Nicole:  You won’t be able to asleep you’ll be too cold.

Michel:  Sorry, you are right, of course.  Can you just confirm my understanding of the journey back to school is right though please.  I am going to lying, soaking wet, in a wicker basket in the back of a van for a six hour car journey through winding country lanes?

Nicole:  Yes, that’s right.  What’s the problem?

Michel:  It’s just that I get travel sickness.  What if I throw up?

Nicole:  I’ll give you a Stugeron beforehand.

Michel:  I don’t think Stugeron have been invented yet.  It’s only 1955.

Nicole:  No, I think they have.  If not, you can always chew on a root of ginger, or whatever it is we do in the olden days.  You’ll be fine.

Michel:  I am also a bit worried about the part where you dump me in the swimming pool.  Won’t she see me when I come up for air?

Nicole:  You’ll just have to stay at the bottom for a few minutes until I can lead her away.

Michel:  A few minutes?

Nicole:  Tops.

Michel:  It’s going to be really cold in there isn’t it?

Nicole:  Yep.

Michel:  Right…well…so anyway, after that I spend the next few days lurking around the school and the town making sure that none of the teachers see me, or the whole thing will have been a waste of time.

Nicole:  Yes, you’ve got it.

Michel:  Nicole, are you sure that this is the best way to scare someone?  Couldn’t we just put a spider in her bed or something?

Nicole:  No, this is the only possible way.

Michel:  But something could so easily go wrong.

Nicole:  It won’t. Villains like us always get away with stuff like this in the movies.  Trust me.

Chris the Critic says:

les-diaboliques-ladies

Shady characters and skeletons in the closet.

Les Diaboliques could almost be considered to be film noir, with the femme fatale, the murder plot, the oppressive atmosphere, and the stark cinematography. The supernatural theme and the scenes of physical horror with the bathtub and the contact lenses however, are not quite noir, and the film is usually considered to be a horror movie.

 

The director, Clouzot, is one of cinema’s great misanthropes. His characters are cynical and cruel, and his storylines are nasty. Aside from the physical horror, there are plenty of other scenes to make the flesh creep, such as the sadistic way Michel forces his wife to eat the rotten fish.

The film hints at a lesbian relationship between the two women, with Nicole in a strong masculine role, and Christina as the traditional passive female.  As the couple are a pair of would-be murderers, the suggestion is that this sexuality, which broke society’s rules in 1954, was in some way criminal. It is interesting to compare this movie to the 1996 Wachowski brothers’ movie Bound which has a similar set-up, but in which the homosexuality is celebrated rather than portrayed, however subtly, as a sin.

 

Main Cast and Crew:

Simone Signoret     as Nicole Horner
Véra Clouzot         as Christina Delassalle
Paul Meurisse        as Michel Delassalle

Director:  Henri-Georges Clouzot

 

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