The Many Crossed Fingers of Diabolique

Diabolique poster

The twist of fate for many a famous twist ending is that posterity has a big mouth, and being so unaccommodating to secrecy, as a movie ages, the viewers most likely to be shocked by whatever twist it has in store aren’t the most inclined to hunt it down in the first place. Not to mention that those who do take the trouble to hunt it down are presumably doing it to for the sake of watching the twist unfold. For a movie like Diabolique, then, the first watch can be ruined by the distraction of little details that should be reserved for the second, more shrewdly observed watch. Obviously, this is a very guilty person writing here.

Clue hunting may be less dishonest to the spirit of filmgoing than goof hunting, but for Diabolique it’s actually a little appropriate, especially since it won’t do you much good and only furthers the frustration shared by Vera Clouzot’s anti-heroine Christina Delassalle, as it’s eventually revealed that every new bizarre development is deliberately meant to confound her. She’s the fey headmistress of a private school who conspires with her cruel husband’s mistress to murder him, and their scheme, once accomplished, doesn’t even take us to the movie’s halfway point, when the body vanishes and all sorts of eerie events occur. The movie is brimming with lies, and to hammer home the suspicion that darker things are afoot it shows the incredible nonchalance with which we tell them. Countless scenes open with characters badmouthing one another, then doing an about-face when the object of their derision pops into frame to redirect the conversation. Back-to-back scenes do the very same, blatantly highlighting the banal tension that goes into living with others in close quarters.

As to show that dishonesty is the only way any of us can have any peace of mind, the most honest character is the most outwardly repugnant. Fichet, the retired detective who offers his services to Christina, shows a discomfiting incomprehension of personal space, nearly tipping into her in the back of a taxi and invading her bedroom while she sleeps. It’s just Christina’s luck that his obsession is tied up in hers, and he provides consistent comic relief in refusing payment for his services should he not deliver results, only to insist that he will deliver results. In another isolated scene a class of schoolboys curb their rowdiness in light of Christina’s frayed nerves, an abnormal, if sincere, show of sensitivity that only angers her when she really wants a return to normality, that normality being their playful disrespect. Their real affection only unnerves her all the more.

At the same time, Christina, husband Michel (Paul Meurrisse), and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) all think they’re being honest with one another, coexisting in open contempt as Michel’s lust for Christina’s inheritance and his affair with Nicole are common knowledge amongst them and the rest of the staff. They all know what the others want, but none believe that the others will do what’s necessary to get it. The brutal honesty is in fact a deception on all sides, creating a status quo that all parties have grown comfortable maintaining. With the steely Nicole’s help Christina thinks she’s outfoxed them all, something the audience will never believe thanks to Clouzot’s brittle, pursed-lip performance.

Clouzot’s performance is also the only consistently dark reminder of the women’s appalling murder in Diabolique. Director (and husband to Vera) Henri-Georges Clouzot leavens this adaptation of a Boileau-Narcejac story with numerous comic characters to counteract their dark agenda, and most scenes that play for tension are also loaded with absurdity. To think that the times they come closest to being found out come courtesy of a pesky landlord and a drunken soldier, the lunacy of their scheme, no matter how carefully planned in their heads, comes out. Such scenes play practically for straight laughs, suddenly turning the most ordinary of things into obstacles, and seamlessly blend into the later, nominally supernatural scenes that have the women perplexed by the truly unexplainable.

Then comes the best black comedy of Diabolique: to get away with Michel’s murder, Christina and Nicole campaign relentlessly to prove he’s actually dead, wishing to expose a truth shadowed by yet another, greater truth. Henri-Georges Clouzot has great fun with this irony, stringing the audience along on a number of inexplicable events until a finale that blows away everything that has come before. Beginning with one horrific assumption, the finale is a perfect progression of reveals that entertains every explanation we could have imagined, only to upend the final explanation one last time at the tail end of the denouement. Artfully combining crime and horror to be both suspenseful and funny, Henri-Georges Clouzot has created a formula that has proved irresistible since, doing such justice to his source material that there’s hardly a need to wonder what the equally interested Hitchcock could have done with the same.

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