Les diaboliques (France 1955)

The set-up in a single image. The two women together, the sadistic male headteacher at the window and a punished boy with his head lowered.

It’s amazing just how many classic films you can fail to watch in a long life of film viewing. I’ve now managed to watch Les diaboliques which I thought I hadn’t seen but now I realise that I’ve probably seen the key scenes before without ever knowing the whole narrative. This means the ‘reveal’ in the final scenes was possibly less shocking than it might have been. There were many things I either hadn’t known or forgotten about the production. The first is that this is an adaptation of a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and that missing out on this adaptation spurred Alfred Hitchcock into acquiring the rights of the same pair’s novel that he adapted as Vertigo in 1957. There was plenty of rivalry and perhaps some bad blood between Henri-Georges Clouzot and Hitchcock. They were each held in high esteem in their own countries and measured against each other. Hitchcock was the great showman, but Clouzot was no slouch either. At the end of Les diaboliques, Clouzot implored the audience not to tell their friends about the ending. Hitchcock did something very similar in his promotion of Psycho in 1960.

A boarding school is a difficult place in which to plan a murder – there is always someone looking. Note the strangely girlish hair for Christina.

If you haven’t seen this film classic, I won’t spoil it either. I’ll just give the set-up of the narrative. Verá Clouzot (Clouzot’s beautiful Brazilian-born wife) is Christina Delassalle, the owner of a small private school outside Paris. Her dominant husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the sadistic ‘headmaster’ who treats the small group of staff and all the boys very harshly. But the staff have their ways of dealing with him, especially the science teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) who has become his mistress. Surely no man could get away with dominating Ms Signoret? But she turns up in the first scene wearing dark glasses because he has hit her. It soon becomes apparent that Christina and Nicole are hatching an ingenious plan to murder Michel – and the plot thickens from there.

A Medium Close-Up of Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret

Apart from an interest in Clouzot’s work, my main interest in watching the film was in Simone Signoret’s performance at the point where her international career was taking off. I’ve been using both Signoret’s autobiography and Susan Hayward’s excellent study of Signoret as star and iconic figure in French cinema, Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign, Continuum 2004. Hayward splits Signoret’s career into four sections and Les diaboliques comes into the second, ‘Trajectory to International Stardom 1952-59’ – which culminates with her Oscar success as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top. Signoret herself writes about the close relationships between Clouzot and Verá and Yves Montand and herself. All four were together for periods during the shoot of The Wages of Fear (1953) in which Montand appeared for Clouzot. Signoret speaks highly of Clouzot’s intelligence and capacity to learn new skills, but she also seems to have had a tempestuous working relationship with him and, to a lesser extent with Verá. She seems not to have enjoyed working on the film – but it went on to be her biggest commercial success at the French box office.

The poster emphasises the different statures of the two women

The film demonstrates some of the oddities about Simone Signoret’s status as the great French female star of the 1950s-80s. Hayward conducts various investigations involving close textual analysis. She considers, for instance, the number of close-ups and medium close-ups of Ms Signoret compared to those for Verá Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. Surprisingly, Signoret has significantly fewer. This seems to follow a pattern in her other films around this time, even when there is a different director/cinematographer. Although Signoret has top billing and the films are popular at the box office, the media (film magazines and newspapers and industry publicity) seem reluctant to treat her as a star. Hayward also notes that Signoret’s costumes are more conservative and less revealing than the more ‘girlish’ or feminine attire worn by Ms Clouzot. This might also suggest that Signoret is the older woman, but in fact she was several years younger than Verá Clouzot. Coupled with the different heights of the two women this gives the scenes involving the pair a possibly comic appearance as they attempt to deal with the practical aspects of murder – such as disposing of the body. However, as Hayward suggests, the presentation of the three central characters is partly explained by the changes Henri-Georges Clouzot made in his adaptation, changing gender roles so that it is no longer a lesbian narrative. This creates the odd situation in which Meurisse in effect adopts a role that corresponds to that of the femme fatale and Signoret is to a certain extent de-sexualised.

One of the more noirish shots

I want at this point to refer to what British critics thought about the film on its UK release. I’ve only recently realised that I have access to the archives of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound online and they have provided a welcome diversion during lockdown. I started reading both publications in the early 1970s and I find that I disagree with reviews from the 1950s. Perhaps it just demonstrates that so much has changed in the way we think about films today. It’s not that the reviewers in the 1950s were necessarily ‘wrong’ or guilty of missing or misinterpreting narrative events, it’s more that they approach any film with sharply honed critical faculties ready to dissect each title rather than attempting to analyse what the film is trying to do. They also show little interest in who might watch the film and what they might take from it. The reviewers in both of the BFI’s journals adopt similar positions, acknowledging Clouzot’s cleverness and the shocking nature of some scenes but arguing that the films suffer from a lack of tension in the central narrative. But the lack of perspective on how audiences might react is striking. It was then less than two years since Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had proved to be one of the most successful releases ever in the UK for a foreign language film. Presumably the reviewers thought that the new film would not create as much interest. They were both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ since Les diaboliques did not get the same wide release in the UK, but it has endured and is now a classic, complete with a Criterion disc release. In 1956 UK critical interest in Hitchcock had not developed to the extent that it would by the 1960s but looking back the similarities between the work of the two directors seem very clear and the body disposal is also reminiscent of later films by Chabrol with their clear Hitchcock references.

The retired Inspector (Charles Vanel) makes an unwelcome appearance at the mortuary

I’ve not really given much detail about the rest of the narrative but two features stood out for me. One is the role of the boys in the school and I did wonder if their performances, especially in spying on the two women and potentially revealing evidence, had any influence on Truffaut’s presentation of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups (1959). I also note the appearance of the veteran actor Charles Vanel as the retired police inspector who invites himself to begin an investigation. The eccentric police inspector became a feature of some of the best French noirs and polars. Clouzot himself introduced such a character in Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947) and the character was known to the British critics who don’t seem to enjoy his appearance. I always enjoy an eccentric investigator and I note that some US-based comments suggest that he might have been an inspiration for Peter Falk in the creation of ‘Columbo’.

I started this post with a view to focusing on Simone Signoret but I think I’ll return to her performance at a later date. She is as good as she always is in this film which also has so many other interesting facets. I’m glad I managed to catch up with it.

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