'Les Diaboliques' returns from 1955, still frightfully good

January 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In 1955, my father told me he'd just seen the scariest film of his life, a French movie called "Diabolique." But then he told me I wasn't old enough to see it. I've finally gotten around to it, four decades later -- and I'm still not old enough. I'll have nightmares for weeks.

Now called by its proper title, "Les Diaboliques" ("The Fiends"), and restored both in the saltiness of its bitter dialogue and in nine minutes' worth of footage, it's all bite and no bark. Appearing at the Charles in rotation with "To Live" (separate admission), it's a terrific movie.

But consider the following amazement: Since 1955, the threshold of movie fear has been pushed beyond infinity and the range of visual blasphemy has been extended beyond the pathologist's knowledge. Yet this movie, made way-back-when, still stuns.

The director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, is principally famous for this film and "The Wages of Fear," which was restored a few years back and, in my view at least, failed to live up to its considerable reputation. But "Les Diaboliques" suffers no such deflation. In fact, as it proceeds, it becomes more and more gripping.

And it demonstrates how fundamentally important story structure is to suspense. As a technical exercise the film is quite inert -- the camera setups are simple, the camera never moves, the settings are unremarkable, even banal. But so deftly plotted is the story and so brilliantly acted are the performances that you suspect the devil himself was the director.

At a third-rate Paris boarding school, the headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meruisse) is a penny-ante Stalin in loafers, a twerpy tyrant of such appalling magnitude that his mistress Nicole Horner (the magnificent Simone Signoret, tough as nails in shades, with an insolent wand of cigarette hanging from her lips) and his sickly wife Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director's wife, who would die tragically at 39) have bonded against him. They decide to commit the perfect crime, and the movie follows their methodical execution as they struggle and improvise desperately as their plan keeps running into little reality snags. Eventually, they deposit Michel into the next world by drowning him in Signoret's bathtub, then dump the body in the school swimming pool.

A few days later, the pool is drained: No body.

The film follows Christina as she fights for sanity in the face of increasing irrationality. Clouzot has mined the last hour so that every 10 minutes or so there's a new detonation, as the plot twists savagely this way and that, and the crush on poor Madame Delasalle grows more intolerably dense.

You may see through the ruse, but by the end the devil's grip on your esophagus is tight enough to block the flow of oxygen to your lungs. As an addendum, I should mention that I've made plans to re-see "Les Diaboliques" in 2035, 40 years down the road. Possibly by that time, I will be old enough.

"Les Diaboliques"

In black and white with subtitles (1955)

Starring Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot

Directed by Henry-Georges Clouzot

Released by Kino International


*** 1/2

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