les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954)

Regarded as a classic of the Horror/Suspense genre, Les Diaboliques would not be considered a horror movie by today’s standards, but it still packs a suspenseful punch. Digitally restored by the BFI, this classic Noir is set in a boy’s boarding school presided over by the cruel, misogynistic headmaster Monsieur Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and his nervous wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). Also under the same roof is his mistress Nicole, played by Simone Signoret.  Both wife and mistress have had enough of being humiliated and abused by the creepy Delassales and plot to murder him; but after they’ve disposed of him the body goes missing, and so begins a cat and mouse game of suspense that ends in a shock plot-twist.

Some years later another great Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was apparently inspired by the pared-down minimalism of Les Diaboliques for his most famous suspense movie, Psycho. Hitchcock also tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire the film rights before Clouzot; and instead settled on another story by the same crime-writing duo, Boileau-Narcejac, which he filmed as Vertigo. There are certainly Hitchcockian touches in Les Diaboliques – the light/dark duality of the wife/mistress, the everyday objects, such as a swimming pool or bathtub, imbued with silent menace; and the cold, clinical, impassive point of view.

This is a story with numerous tiers of cruelty and cruel behaviour layered one on top of  the other. None of the characters escape the hateful, bitter atmosphere and all are either bullied or bullying in their own respective ways. The plot will keep you guessing right up to the end, and bathtime might not seem so appealing after watching this.

(Les Diaboliques is showing exclusively at the IFI until May 5th)

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