We all want blood. When it comes to horror films at least, the gore-free spooky numbers like Sixth Sense and The Others have definitely been over-run by hordes of bloody splatter, slasher and rotting zombie flicks. Les Diaboliques is another sort of horror film – scary, psychological, clever, and most of all, French. It also made number 19 in last year’s list of top 25 horror movies at The Guardian
Friday 13th and Scream weren’t even on the list. Les Diaboliques is obviously a film to be reckoned with. Directed by French master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot, this is possibly his best known film outside of France. The story is ingenious and is drawn from a book by the French authors Boileau-Narcejac, whose ‘D’entre les Morts’ Hitchcock would use as the basis for his masterpiece, Vertigo. In fact, Hitch wanted to adapt this story, but was pipped to the post by Clouzot.
Set in a spooky, run-down boarding school, we’re introduced to a more-bizarre-than-usual love triangle. Paul Meurisse plays Michel Delassalle, a nasty bully of a headmaster, who as well as intimidating his mouse-like wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife at the time), is having an affair with another teacher, the beautiful blonde Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret). The affair is messy – not hidden from his wife and violent to his mistress – and Michel is a marvellously dislikeable.
The headmaster is good value, but it is his bit on the side who is the real icy heart of this film. If you’re not familiar with Signoret, now is your opportunity. She is often regarded as one of the greatest French film stars, and appeared in more than 60 movies over her lifetime as well as writing what the New York Times called a “witty, melancholy autobiography” with a funny title, ‘Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be’. Here she plays a deadly serious character with calculated precision.
Christina Delassalle, the cowering wife, is a devout Catholic with implacable beliefs in the afterlife. So, the story evolves into a tale of sin and baguettes. Well, baguettes may not be crucial to the plot, but make the odd appearance. Clouzot conjures gripping tension, shocking horror, and even subtle humour (Nicole Horner’s tenants provide a lovely comic interlude). The secondary characters are all intriguing: subtly freakish teachers, an inscrutable policeman, nasty school children.
It’s no wonder that Stanley Kubrick was such a fan of the film. The Shining contains two explicit references to Les Diaboliques and takes Clouzot’s use of the spine chilling potential of corridors to their cinematic peak. Kubrick, the arch-stylist must have loved the elegant framing of the film too.
The new Blu-Ray release comes with a DVD copy too and an interesting audio commentary by Susan Hayward, author of the Cine-file French Film Guide to Les Diaboliques, an interview with Ginette Vincendeau, French cinema scholar, critic and author and a fab booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Brad Stevens and a re-printed interview with Clouzot by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver), plus illustrations including stills, rare original set drawings by Léon Barsacq, and artwork presentation packaging including original posters and a newly commissioned artwork cover.