Diabolique (1955): Scariest Film Ever Made, Directed by Clouzot, Starring Simone Signoret

One of the scariest and most suspenseful films ever made, Henri-George Clouzot’s Diabolique (Les Diaboliques) features the kind of shock ending that sent audiences back in 1955 screaming out of the theaters.

I think the French title, “Les Diaboliques” (which translates into “The Devils”) is better and more accurate.

Set in an extremely strict, provincial boarding school, the film revolves around a callous, rigid school master, Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), his rich, fragile wife, Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot, the director’s real wife) and his sexy mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret).

Seemingly a cold-blooded murderess, Nicole helps Christina kill her abusive husband by poisoning him, then dumping his body in the pool of the school.

For some reasons, Christina believes that her husband is still alive.  The next day, when the pool is drained, no body is found there.  Adding to her fears is the report of some school boys that they have seen their master.

As the investigation of Michel’s death proceeds, the tension between the two women increases.

No doubt, “Diabolique” is a cruel, coldly calculated exercise in cinema, manipulating viewers in the best (and worst) possible ways.  As director, Clouzot uses every trick to keep us guessing up to the final shot, which is utterly shocking (and cannot be disclosed here).

“Diabolique” also contains an effective “eyeball” scene, which is easily on the same level of that in “Un Chien Andalou” by Bunuel and Dali, and the memorable image of Janet Leigh’s eye at the end of the murder in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Speaking of Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense was so impressed with Clouzot’s film that he decided to out-do him, and “Diabolique” is believed to influence the 1960 “Psycho.” (But, for me, “Diabolique” is far more cruel, chilly, and frightening on any level).

The screenplay is based on a popular novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who later wrote “D’Entre Les Mortes,” which served as the source material for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” considered by many critics to be his greatest masterpiece.

Nicole, a tough disciplinarian, is introduced wearing a white cardigan shirt with classical lines and a black dress that restricts her leg movements. She’s a determined woman who knows what she wants,  In contrast, the younger Christina is wearing a summer dress with many petticoats underneath. Her clothing, including the dress, a shawl, and braided hair indicated a youthful, school-girly disposition.  Nicole and Michel treat Christina more like a child than a mature adult.”

Early on, Josélito, a Latin American student, gives Christina a fan, a gesture that can be interpreted in various ways. It may reflect her foreign origins and hidden desire to leave France.

Upon its initial release the film created a sensation among viewers.  It’s one of the most commercially successful pictures in France’s film history.  According to one estimate, about 20 percent of the French population saw the picture, which enjoyed a very long theatrical run.

The film also enjoyed critical acclaim from the more cerebral reviewers.  The venerable New York Film Critics Circle honored “Diabolique” as Best Foreign language film, declaring a tie with Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic film “Umberto D.”

Life imitates art: Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack five years after the film was made, at the young age of 46.

Spoiler Alert

Signoret’s Nicole pretends to kill her married lover with the assistance of his meek wife, only to drive the wife crazy, in order to reunite with husband-lover.

End Note:

Steer clear of the American remake, “Diabolic,” in 1996, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, which is vastly disappointing.

 

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

A second-rate boarding school in Saint-Cloud, Hauts-de-Seine, in the Paris metropolitan area, is run by the tyrannical and cruel Michel Delassalle. The school is owned, though, by Delassalle’s teacher wife, the frail Christina, an emigrée from Venezuela. Delassalle also has a relationship with Nicole Horner, another teacher at the school.

Rather than antagonism, the two women are shown to have a somewhat close relationship, primarily based on their apparent mutual hatred of Michel, who is physically and emotionally abusive to both, as well as unkind to the children.
Unable to stand his mistreatment any longer, Nicole devises a plan to get rid of Michel forever.

Though hesitant at first, Christina ultimately consents to help Nicole. Using a threatened divorce to lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment building in Niort, a town several hundred kilometers away, Christina sedates him. The two women then drown him in a bathtub and, driving back to the school, dump his body in the neglected swimming pool. When his corpse floats to the surface, they think it will appear to have been an accident. Almost everything goes according to their plans until the body fails to surface. Michel’s corpse is nowhere to be found when the pool is drained.

Nicole reads in the paper that the police have found the corpse. However, when Christina goes to the morgue, she finds it’s not actually Michel’s body. There, she meets Alfred Fichet, a retired policeman now working as a private detective. He becomes involved in the case, much to Nicole’s chagrin.

When Christina and Alfred return, a boy is punished for breaking a window, but he insists that it was Michel who punished him. Christina, quite upset, is unable to join in the school photograph. When it’s printed, somebody looking like Michel is seen at a window behind the group. Nicole becomes worried and leaves the school.

Christina, overcome by fear, tells Alfred everything. He doesn’t believe her, but he investigates the pool. That night, Christina hears noises and wanders round the school. When she realizes that someone is following her, she runs back to her room, where she finds Michel’s corpse submerged in the bathtub, which is full of water. Michel rises from the tub, and Christina, who has a weak heart, suffers a heart attack and dies.

It is revealed that Michel and Nicole have set up Christina from the beginning, with Michel acting as dead to scare Christina to death. However, Alfred hears their celebration and figures out everything, telling them they will get 15 to 20 years, depending on their lawyer.

The same boy who had earlier broken a window breaks another window.  Asked how he got his slingshot back, the boy says Christina gave it to him.

A final title card asks the audience not to reveal the ending to other viewers.

Cast

Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret)

Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot)

Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse)

Credits

Produced and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Screenplay: Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Frederic Grendel, Rene Masson, based on the novel, “Celle Qui N’etait Pas” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Camera; Armand Thirard

Editing; Madeleine Gug

Music: George Van Parys

Art direction; Leon Barsacq