Arriving in stores on the 25th April, Clouzot’s classic gothic murder mystery/horror comes to Blu in the UK.
I only watched Les Diaboliques for the first time this past Monday. Yes, I know. I hear you. Uh-huh. YES I KNOW! Â But what better way to take in a first time watch of what is widely considered as one of the best genre films of all time than on the new Blu-Ray edition of it? It’s a shame that it had taken me so long to get to the film as the ending is widely known and I remember Film 2011 on BBC1 non-chalantly giving away the twist a few months back, it seems they didn’t heed the warning at the end of the film not to be diabolical. Still, I’m not going to blame them, as a self respecting film fan, it’s one I should have gotten to years ago now but like all the best movies that are predicated on a twist, it’s got a hell of a lot more to recommend it besides.
The story is simple. Michel (Paul Meurisse) is a despicable man, living off his wife Â Christina (Vera Clouzot) at the private boys school they run together. To make things worse, he is having an obvious affair with fellow teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) while everyone just accepts it. The women decide they’ve had enough of his ways though and hatch a plan to kill him and make it look like a pure accident. This opens up a world of problems for the ladies, and especially Christina whose already highly strung Catholic guilt raised temperament starts to get the better of her.
Alfred Hitchcock was quoted as saying that the one film he wished he had made was Les Diaboliques and it is easy to see why, it’s mysterious plot of dastardly deeds and the all too human emotions which come of them is something that he has dealt with countless times, and it is shot in a way that would make any fan of suspense ridden drama salivate at the mouth.Right from the start we see that Christina is a woman repressed. A small, fragile little thing who even has a heart that cannot take all that much strain, you get the sense that even if she weren’t already under the oppressive hammer of her husband, she’d still be a nervous wreck. Her guilt at wanting to do away with her husband is not only impacted by the sheer human feeling of not wanting to take another’s life but also in the fact that she believes that she will be damned if she does so and in her, we have an entirely sympathetic lead who could be seen as being rather wet or “flaky” but in the situation we find her in and the sheer fact that everybody around her feels sorry for her yet does little, we cannot help but be attached to her.
Yet also we are attached to Nicole who in most other stories would certainly be the bad guy, though this almost feels like what would happen after the end of that kind of film, once the affair has been established and has also grown tired. Nicole is the exotic, extravagant woman (despite it being Christina who is the one whose come from a far away land), and while she may have been a maneater before the film started, which her more overt sexuality and casual way of dealing withÂ every man she comes into contact with certainly suggests this, but as her first appearance is shown with her hiding a black eye, everything has become rather more routine as Michel subjects Christina to mental punishment and Nicole to physical, Michel even punishing them differently as a way of expressing that he knows that there is a world of difference between them. Despite this, the women come together in a bid to stop him under the clear moral message that any person of any gender and age can recognise, that wholly corrupt, and yes diabolical, behaviour must go punished.
Obviously, this is not just the case with our protagonist’s treatment of Michel but also, in the film’s cruel plot machinations, to the schemers themselves and in particular Christina whose religious guilt comes back to bite her in what seem to be manifest physical ways, at first through creepy, subtle indicators before becoming larger, and outwardly more terrifying. Clouzot’s perfect use of a gothic setting and black and white photography come together in a way which cannot possibly fail to give anyone shivers, despite it being 56 years old. Much like another gothic horror I watched recently, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, the film takes it’s scares not only from imagery though, but also from the psychological indicators set out by the film in it’s earlier scenes. The clattering of a typewriter, the cruel punishment of the children at the school, and something as simple as a suit come together to give you chills in the most real way.
Adding to all this is the film’s brilliant touch of adding a retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who only wants to help Christina despite her being one of the people he is looking for. As well as the torment she faces with the situation itself, she also has to deal with a man who is constantly questioning, like a bloodhound and in any other movie, he would be a hero, a person we can get behind, but as we have gotten so attached to Christina, you can’t help that he should leave her alone, to give her some peace if nothing else. It’s a fascinating idea for a character and Vanel’s likeable yet subtly annoying performance is a real highlight.
As are all the performances. Although Paul Meurisse apparently had problems with her (listen to the commentary for more on this), Vera Clouzot’s insular, constantly stressed performance is a real marvel, the woman never once letting up in the sheer anxiety she appears to be going through for the entire runtime, and this is contrasted by Simone Signoret’s ice-cool performance who barely ever flinches, always seems to know what to do and yet when she starts to take a turn, if anything the film just gets even more engaging. Paul Meurisse also excels in one of the best bad guy roles I have seen in quite some time. Full of arrogance and seething hate, you can’t wait for Christina to get him knocked off, every line oozing with a layer of filth and every action feeling utterly wicked, he’s mesmerising but absolutely disgusting to boot.
So then.. If I haven’t already made it clear, I thought Les Diaboliques was extraordinary, a highpoint of the genre which will likely never be matched. Full of tension throughout and with fantastic performances, it’s a film you need to make time for as soon as possible.
The Arrow Academy Dual Format Blu-Ray + DVD set comes with a booklet featuring an interview with Clouzot among other things, which was not available to me as a screener copy. The image is presented in 1080p full frame which is in parts impressive and in others not so. This may be more a problem of the source materials if nothing else as external photography looks rougher than internal, some dirt and scratching on the print are evident, but the interior scenes are also a little troublesome, some fairly sharp, some in soft focus, though the actual disc transfer itself seems to do the best it can with what it has. For most of the film a fine layer of grain is evident and detail is as good as I think you can get without doing a full restoration of the print itself. It doesn’t look fantastic in all honesty, but that’s not to say that it just looks like a DVD either, taking a look at the DVD included in the package, you can see what difference a HD transfer makes. The audio is a straight up PCM 1.0 track which is representative of what the film would have sounded like at the time of release and did the job perfectly well.
The extras on the disc kick off with a commentary by Susan Hayward, author of the Cine-file French Film Guide book on Les Diaboliques, who has a fair bit to say as the film goes on, providing a few stories on the making of the feature but it mainly concentrates on the themes of the film and what Clouzot is trying to say with certain shots. It’s a fairly academic track but it is informative though it’s somewhat hampered by Hayward sounding like she is reading notes throughout and also as the film reaches it’s conclusion she doesn’t actually say all that much, something that disappointed me slightly considering the wealth of information she gives in the first 90 minutes or so.
Acting as a wonderful compliment to the commentary is a near half-hour “introduction” to the film by French critic Ginette Vincendeau who both expands on many of the points raised by Hayward’s commentary and also talks about external influences of the film, French society at time in particular, as well as offering an introduction to Clouzot’s work and also talking about his similarities to Hitchcock, made even clearer by the fact brought up in this piece that Hitchcock bought the rights to another book by the authors who inspired Les Diaboliques, which then became Hitchcock’s masterpiece (in my opinion) Vertigo. This feature is absolutely fantastic though I’d argue it’s not exactly an introduction of the film, more an engaging and thorough half hour of information. Finishing things off with the extras is a wonderful original French trailer for the film which is as stylish as the film itself and also finishes with a warning that people will not be let in once the film begins so as not to spoil the surprises, something Hitchcock stole himself for a certain murder mystery he made…
Les Diaboliques comes to Blu in the UK in a technically competent package which is lifted up by the wonderful combination of a thorough and informative commentary along with an introduction piece which takes the ball thrown by the commentary and runs with it. In all, a package I have got no qualms in recommending at all, ending up as another solid Arrow Academy entry.