Classic Film Review: Diabolique
Welcome back to Classic Film Review! This week, we’re traveling to across the globe, this time to France. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Les Diaboliques’, otherwise known as ‘Diabolique’ in the States, a horror thriller that inspired the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Anything that inspires ‘Psycho’ should be fun, right? Last week, I reviewed the legendary Akira Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’. If you wish to read my thoughts on that film, you can do so here. Without further ado, let’s jump in to this intense film!
‘Diabolique’ has a very straightforward premise. A fragile woman named Christina (played by Vera Clouzot) is married to her abusive husband Michel who is also in a relationship with another woman named Nicole (played by Simone Signoret). Having grown tired of the abuse and torment from her husband, Christina teams up with Nicole to find a way to get rid of him. At Nicole’s appartment in the town of Niort, Nicole conjures up a plan to sedate Michel and drown him in a bathtub. Despite being apprehensive of the idea, Christina agrees to the plan and the two women successfully carry out the murder. After disposing of the body in the boarding school pool, Christina tries to return to a normal life without abuse, only to eventually learn that Michel’s body has disappeared from the pool.
Similar to ‘Psycho’, there’s essentially two narratives spliced together. The first half with Christina trying to escape from Michel’s tyranny and the second half is the mystery surrounding the murder. Christina avoiding suspicion from authorities while secretly carrying a dead body also draws parallels to Marion Crane running away the stolen cash from her boss. There are many other similarities to draw upon between the two films (such as how the murder happened in the bathroom), so Hitchcock was definitely inspired by this movie. However, it would not be accurate to describe ‘Psycho’ as a copycat as ‘Diabolique’ goes in a much different direction.
The underlying feeling of guilt and tension never dissipates. The audience almost always feels like there’s something wrong. Could it really be that easy to kill an abusive husband? Is Christina really safe from him? Vera Clouzot’s performance captures this inescapable dread exceptionally well. Her heightened breath and widened eyes conveys that she is always alert and afraid of what could happen to her. Contrasting with Nicole’s nonchalant personality and deep alto voice, the two women create an engaging chemistry that’s enjoyable to watch. Unlike ‘Psycho’, the main protagonist remains the same throughout and she co-operates with someone else to carry out her crime. The setting of the boarding school also introduces the conflict of maintaining normalcy while living with unbearable fear. Anxiety permeates throughout the film, which is necessary for the genre.
Another distinction between the two films is the general lack of a soundtrack. Despite having music in the beginning of the film, ‘Diabolique’ is remarkably strategic when it comes to sound. It doesn’t need to amplify the horror with music, although there’s nothing wrong with a good film score. We only need to hear the voices of the characters and of the environment. Lighting is also handled differently compared to Hitchcock. Being a black-and-white film, lightness and darkness is pivotal in conveying the mood, especially for horror genres. Shadows assume a dramatically more prominent role in ‘Diabolique’ compared to ‘Psycho’, with multiple sequences taking place in dimly lit corridors or nighttime outdoor settings.
One particular sequence that really demonstrates how ‘Diabolique’ handles shadows is when Christina is luring Michel inside the room wherein she sedates him. As Michel enters the room, only his body is illuminated by the open door, whereas the rest of the corridor is mostly obscured by darkness, including Christina’s body. Christina knows she is about to commit a crime she fears would condemn her to Hell, but she has little choice if she wishes to rid of a man who has been tormenting her for years. ‘Diabolique’ tells a story about the dangers of revenge and living with the burden of guilt and trauma. The audience eventually doesn’t know who to trust and what is the truth, which is exactly the type of development you need in a thriller.
Of course, no thriller could be complete if it were not for the twist at the end and boy does ‘Diabolique’ not disappoint. I don’t normally react to big plot twists, but this one made me gasp and audibly say, “What?!”. The ending alone makes this film well worth watching on HBO Max if you are subscribed to it. (Fun fact: All of the foreign films I’ve reviewed thus far are available on HBO Max. It’s such a great service.) If you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned thrillers but have seen every Hitchcock movie under the sun, you should definitely give ‘Diabolique’ a watch.