It is rare to find a film that can keep audiences guessing up to the very last frame. This is especially true when the film features a twist that requires the audience to suspend their level of disbelief even more than normal. Yet somehow Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic, Les Diaboliques, manages to pull it off masterfully. In fact, Clouzot is so confident in the film’s ability to pull the rug out from under the audience that he even advises viewers not to reveal the secret to those who have not yet seen the film.
Despite being nearly sixty years-old, one still feels the need to uphold Les Diaboliques’ no spoiler advice. The pleasure of the film is not only in trying to figure out the mystery, but also watching the main characters try to decipher the mystery as well. Clouzot’s film revolves around the turbulent relationship between Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and her husband Michel (Paul Merurisse). The couple run an all boys boarding school that Christina inherited from her affluent family. Although it is Christina that keeps the couple afloat financially, it is Michel who holds all the power. As the headmaster at the school, Michel rules with an iron fist. He exudes an arrogance that instills fear in both his students and his staff.
Michel is so drunk with power that he openly parades around his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), who also teaches at the school. Michel is not even remotely embarrassed when Nicole tries to cover up signs of his physical abuse he delivered the night prior. Unbeknownst to Michel, his reign of terror is about to come to an end as Christina and Nicole plot to murder him and stage it to look like he drowned in the school pool. However, their plan begins to spiral out of control once Michel’s body vanishes without a trace.
Clouzot takes great pleasure in highlighting how the missing body impacts the women. Once a united front, Christina and Nicole’s solidarity quickly cracks as speculation and suspicion begins to creep in. It is a treat watching Christina’s journey as guilt and fear start to drive her into madness. Through Christina, Clouzot is able to pose the question in regards to which is worse? The devil you know or the devil that you do not? Although Michel was a despicable man, at least Christina knew what to expect. The disappearance of Michel’s body is nothing she could have ever anticipated. In her quest for freedom from Michel, Christina ultimately finds herself trapped in a new form of hell.
Despite the plot of Les Diaboliques unfolding like a murder mystery, Christina’s cerebral hell in the film makes it more akin to the horror genre. Christina’s descent into madness is fueled by a tormentor who may or may not be of the supernatural kind. Items belonging to Michel magically surface in her room, a shadowy figure appears in the background of the school photo, etc. The only downside to this is that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s cerebral trickery is slightly ruined by having one twist too many. When you factor in what we have learned about one character in particular up to that point, the final reveal feels tacked on at the last minute.
While the final minutes of Les Diaboliques borders on the ridiculous, the journey up to that point is captivating. Part of this is due to the emergence of Charles Vanel’s Inspector Fichet halfway through the film. Vanel does a great job of portraying a man who is determined to solve the mystery, but who appears to be an investigator well past his prime. However, if there is one thing to take away from Clouzot’s film it is that appearances are deceiving. Inspector Fichet pieces together what is occurring but is careful not to reveal his hand too early. He opts to let the events play out the way he expects they will. This includes waiting until the guilt is too much for Christina’s conscious.
If you take away the last twist, Les Diaboliques is a near perfect film. The performances are strong from the entire cast and the script succeeds in keeping the audience guessing the entire time. Henri-Georges Clouzot constructs a film in which every characters has something to hide and the viewer takes great pleasure in attempting to unravel their secrets.