1955. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
A fraught mystery that deconstructs the femme fatale mystique, Les Diaboliques is a psychological horror yarn that patiently builds a haunted ambiance that exponentially grows as the narrative creeps towards its blood chilling denouement.
Christina is a languid governess of a dingy boarding school that is run by her domineering husband, Michel. Michel's former mistress, Nicole, is a teacher at the school who approaches Christina with a plan to kill Michel in order to free both women from his destructive grasp. Soon after the deed is done, Michel's body vanishes and both women begin to experience supernatural phenomenon signifying that Michel has come back from the beyond for revenge against the murderous duo. The appearance of a wily detective who asks all the right questions begins to strain Christina's psyche, threatening not only to erode her sanity, but to permanently destroy her damaged heart.
The interplay between the central trio, Simone Signoret as Nicole, Clouzot's wife Vera as Christina, and Paul Meurisse as Michel, works so well because of the real tension that was brewing on set. Production ran eight weeks over schedule, causing Signoret and Clouzot to clash as she was not being paid for the extra work. The result is some of the most genuine harshness ever conveyed in film. The women are committed and yet doubtful, while Meurisse is frightening and reprehensible, but also intriguing, making the tainted love triangle organically human. These are broken people locked into a cycle of abuse and neglect that colors each of the participants' motives with plausible intent.
Armand Thirard's cinematography is elusive, framing the school scenes in a withdrawn manner, and then using conspiratory tight angles whenever the women are are plotting their vengeance. In the final third of the film, the shots transform into nightmarish compositions as the supernatural elements begin their invasion of reality. Clouzot's screenplay, based on the novel She Who Was No More. takes a basic noir concept and transmutes it into a menacing reversal. What begins as a vendetta is slowly corrupted into a ghost story whose final twist is one for the ages. I'm being deliberately vague as to not spoil the fun, but rest assured, for first time viewers, this is what horror films are all about.
Available now on Huluplus or on a precise transfer Criterion Collection blu ray, Les Diaboliques is an excellent horror film with a one of a kind ending. Clouzot purchased the rights to the film shortly before Hitchcock had a chance and the film's influence on Psycho is undeniable, right down the final frame cautioning the viewer to not spoil the fun for the uninitiated. An ancestor of the surprise ending, Les Diaboliques presents an intricate mystery that befuddles and frightens with subterfuge and atmosphere.