Diabolique

“Diabolique,” a French film from 1955 directed by Henri-George Clouzot, offers a taut and interesting story about a wife and a mistress of school principal who plot a murder. The principal, Michel, played by Paul Meurisse, beats both his wife and his mistress, and they all work at a provincial boy’s boarding school in a small village in France.  The mistress, Nicole, played by Simone Signoret, masterminds the plot and gets the principal’s wife involved.  The wife, Christina, played by Véra Clouzot, suffers from both a heart ailment and an extremely pious attitude to life.  But the principal’s cruelty forces Christina’s hand and she agrees to murder him.

Simone Signoret (left) and Véra Clouzot in "Diabolique."

Simone Signoret (left) and Véra Clouzot in “Diabolique.”

Clouzot segments the film into three distinct parts.  The first part shows the principal at his most monstrous as he bullies the boys, yells at his staff and abuses both Nicole and Christina.  In the middle of the film, the elaborate murder and disposal of the body takes place. Part three involves the women avoiding detection as they turn against each other to cover their tracks.  A private eye begins to sniff around the school and suspects the women may be involved in a crime.

The murderers expect things to play out a certain way, and their plans account for their assumptions. However, when things don’t pan out, they turn against each other. They’ve ditched the body in a swimming pool on the school grounds, and expect it to surface in a couple of days. It doesn’t surface, and it’s not found when they drain the pool. After hearing about a body found in the River Seine, Christina marches down to the morgue to identify the body, but instead only finds the snooping investigator. Back at school, Christina then begins hearing things and the movie gets scarier as the audience wonders whether Michel is really dead. The viewer is treated to a taut and unusual combination of suspense, mystery and horror.

Everything pays off beautifully at the end.  Perhaps the film serves as an example that it’s better for a screenwriter to think of the ending first and then write the rest of the movie.  In fact, the ending is so satisfying, interesting and surprising it invites a much closer look at the individual scenes.  I didn’t notice anything that could have tipped off the ending; I was too wrapped up in the story and the chemistry between Nicole and Christina to anticipate such a finish.

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