Monday, October 31, 2011

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Long seen as the French answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to surpass his British yin with Les diaboliques. Predating Psycho by five years, the film clearly got under Hitch's skin, for he plundered it to make his own twisty horror-thriller. Les diaboliques (released as Diabolique in the United States) introduces the upheaving twist that Psycho would move up from the climax to the end of the first act, features a bathroom scene the Master of Suspense had to work to top, and it works on a high plane of grim irony that even Hitchcock, with his dark sense of humor, must have admired.

But to define Clouzot by Hitch's standards is not only unfair but misleading. Where Hitchcock's technique-driven direction typically bypasses both narrative and character to grab the audience, Clouzot puts so much effort into retaining the plot of Boileau-Narcejac's novel that the film feels more like a proper mystery book, with its meticulous, follow-the-breadcrumbs pace daring to languish with extraneous scenes while still carefully building a mood. More so than the glissandi-spiked frights and deliberately jarring anti-narrative strokes of Psycho, Les diaboliques seizes the audience through a series of events so smoothly ordered that it's impossible to feel cheated even when the director rips out the carpet from underneath the audience.

Subtly, Clouzot never even allows for a moment's rest, even subverting the calm of the first few minutes by playing up the always glum setting of a boarding school. Horror is all about an exaggeration of anxieties, and the film traces this school back to the root of European education, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, patron saint of teachers. In a cute joke, the married couple who head the school are the Delassalles. Christina (Clouzot's wife Véra), a frail wife whose heart condition seems to have preserved her in a false, perverse youth, actually owns the school. But it is her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) who runs the school as principal, and he projects the financial insecurity of his wife's wealth into his behavior. Michel takes every opportunity to shame Christina, referring to her as his "little ruin" for her health issues. He so boisterously tears Christina down that his taunts have a way of silencing the school's rowdy boys but also shifting their attention squarely to the abused wife, as if attack dogs waiting for the order to strike.

Michel is misogyny on legs, so cruel he flaunts his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher, before everyone. Yet his repellent behavior is such that these two women actually bond over how much they hate him, with Nicole just as disgusted by his treatment of Christina as the wife herself. Signoret, with her limitless sensuality, here seduces the wife more than any man, ignoring the lecherous come-ons of the other teachers to woo Christina into doing something about Michel. This only further complicates the complex sexual dynamics of the film, which already aligns leering masculine presence against suffering females of different stripes. Nicole hatches a plan to kill Michel, the femme goading another woman into taking down a man rather than the usual inverse.

Clouzot progresses the plot from this point with a steady suction of light from the mise-en-scène and a gradual twisting of the frame. Everything slowly darkens as the two carry out their scheme and deal with the fallout, gradually dipping into inky voids so black that when light finally reenters the frame, it is only to spotlight a new shadow. Clouzot rarely uses music to punctuate a scene, letting the dread pile up from his gentle but ominous presentation of mostly static shots that tease failure at every turn. However, the shot of a sedated Michel being submerged in a bathtub to drown, or of the mild shock of his bloated face (complete with eyes rolled back into his skull) revealed as the women dump the body, wrings further chills by implicating the audience's desire to see him punished visualized in flat but gruesome terms. Furthermore, the flat pans and tracks that began the film pivot to angle everything, and objects such as stairs increasingly enter the frame add yet more visual madness as Christina starts to fall apart from guilt and fear.

Mordant irony plays a key role in the film as well. As Nicole runs the bath to drown the unconscious Michel, the tenants she earlier had to shake down for money now complain about the noise drowning out a radio contest. And as Michel's last breath bubbles out of him, the whinging man upstairs tells his wife he won't come to bed until they drain the tub because he cannot sleep with the noise. But later, he helps load the wicker basket containing Michel's corpse into Christina's car, oblivious that he's toting the reason for his minor inconvenience. When the women dump Michel's body into the school swimming pool hoping to make the murder look like an accident, the grim humor begins to align with the plot as his body subsequent disappears and clues stack up that he may be alive. Before long, Michel is darkly tormenting his wife more in "death" than in life. Christina, already terrified of being caught, soon has to deal with yet another thorn in the form of a retired detective who pities this woman who's "lost" her husband and also wants to feel like he can still figure out a case. The poor bastard found the one woman in France who couldn't want his help less.

To further connect the film to Hitchcock, the British director purportedly pursued the rights to the book and only just got beaten to the punch by Clouzot. But I can't help but feel Hitch, who largely left religion out of his work and even took Ed Gein's fanatical upbringing out of Norman Bates for Psycho, wouldn't have brought as much to Les diaboliques as Clouzot. French Catholicism hangs over this film, from the naming of the lead couple and school after a saint to the altar Christina keeps that subtly keeps triggering her guilt when she prays at it. Yet I wondered if that religion also didn't drive her to the murder in the first place, as it clearly forbids her from divorce. It also informs the patriarchal model in which the two women operate, creating a system of chauvinistic, repressed men who speak condescendingly and paternally to the same women they want to defile. Even the boys suffer from this, as heard in one brief aside where two schoolboys preparing for a trip home work out the final details for peeking in one of their sisters while bathing.

Even the film's twist plays into this critical view of misogyny, revealing an even larger scheme orchestrated by corrupting male forces to manipulate and even dispatch women. Clouzot does such a fine job of making Christina, for all her misdeeds and mounting paranoia, sympathetic that to see the tables cruelly turn on her provoked a complex mix of tragedy and just desserts. It also makes the terror that much more effective and, combined with some beautifully chill-inducing shots in the climax, manages to sustain the energy of a quicker jump scare over a longer period of time, drawing out the horror all the way through the best damn use of contact lenses ever put to film.

An omnipresent suggestion of surveillance hangs over the second half, which feels like the voyeuristic thrillers of Hitchcock and De Palma rooted solely on the perspective of the watched instead of the watcher. That makes the twist guessable but not obvious; more importantly, it makes the film rewatchable, not simply dropping a sudden break into the film but demonstrating its narrative cohesion through visual mastery of mood. That building aesthetic of constant reality shifts and a tragic sense of bewilderment would find its way in Hitchcock's subsequent adaptation of another Boileau-Narcejac book, his masterpiece Vertigo, the film so unlike what its director had done before yet so summarizing and fulfilling of all his traits. To see so much of that film, and Psycho, given its foundation made Les diaboliques a delight, but the film's true joys are self-contained and independent of the huge influence they had. It's easy to see why everyone, even the best, would crib from it, and Les diaboliques got under my skin as well as I'm sure it did for audiences in the mid-'50s, when it was one of the first foreign films to play outside the arthouse circuit in the English-speaking world.

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