Les Diaboliques is littered with visual symbols, but perhaps its most telling imagery is that which is shown as early as the very first frame – though the first-time viewer will be unable to identify exactly what it is. The film’s titles are presented over algae infested water, water which will eventually become key to the film’s central mystery, but also more generally a metaphor for some of the film’s many levels of meaning, about what we see on the surface of things, and what is really lying beneath them.
On the murky surface of the story lie the three main characters: Michel, the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys, is a short-tempered, abusive womanizer; his wife Christina, a teacher at the school but also its owner, and whose family money her husband is all too keen to exploit; and finally Nicole, also a teacher at the school, and with whom Michel has been conducting a very public affair with for a long time. How French.
From the outset, we can see that the women have a common resentment of the cruel headmaster; Christina knows she is being exploited as well as being publicly humiliated by his continuing affair with another woman, while early on Nicole is shown sporting dark sunglasses which are to hide the black eye that Michel had administered the night before. The two women, led by the domineering Nicole, hatch a plan to rid themselves of this man: lure him to a lodging house, drug him with sedatives and drown him in the bath, returning the body later to the school swimming pool to give the appearance of his having died by accident.
The plan succeeds, but the weaker Christina, unable to wait for her dead husband to be discovered, panics and hurriedly orders the swimming pool to be drained, since the water is so dirty that the body has yet to be seen. This is duly done, but there is no sign of Michel’s body. And when there are reports of him being seen around the school and town, coupled with his suit being returned by the dry-cleaners, both the mystery and dramatic tension begin to thicken further.
If the viewer thinks they know where they are, then they are in for more than a few surprises. Much has been made of Clouzot being ‘the French Hitchcock’, and not without reason; indeed, the British auteur himself wanted to film this story, but narrowly missed out on the rights to it, going on to adapt authors Boileau and Narcejac’s Sueurs froides: d’entre les morts as Vertigo (1958) instead. Much like Vertigo, as well as Psycho (1960) which would follow, the suspense of Les Diaboliques gently creeps up on the viewer rather than going straight for the jugular. Director Clouzot keeps the film deliberately slow-paced; while most thrillers are quick to establish the mystery element, in Les Diaboliques the murder plot takes nearly half of the film to come to fruition.
The deliberately slow pacing, at the expense of narrative velocity, allows much greater character development. While Michel is generally seen to be a shallow, one-dimensional monster, the two women provide an interesting dichotomy: the sturdily-built, almost macho Nicole is a stark contrast to the angelic almost girl-like daintiness of Christina, and there is a strange air of sexual tension between the two women, predating the similar dynamic found in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). With her cropped platinum blonde hair and sharply cut suits, Nicole cuts an angular screen presence, dominating the screen whenever present, as she dominates control over the women’s murderous plan.
While the character of Nicole is a fascinating masculine femme fatale, Christina, played by Clouzot’s wife, Vera. represents many different things: feminity, but also Latin American exoticism, as well as chaste Roman Catholicism – her lodgings are somewhat akin to a cross between a religious shrine and a confessional booth, once again in contrast to Nicole and her more functionally decorated house. There are some strictly autobiographical details here: Vera Clouzot was originally from Brazil, and her health problems are replicated in her character here (tragically, she would die from a heart-attack five years after the release of Les Diaboliques).
The boarding-school setting may seem fairly insubstantial to the plot, but the film’s final scene gives away something of its relevance; a schoolboy, who throughout the film has been chastised for telling lies and drawing on the school walls, claims to have seen a ghost. When this is dismissed by the adults, he walks off wearily. His creative impulses have been stifled at every turn by the grown-up world, the supposedly more mature and respectable adults, but who are actually the more childish, petulant and unruly – the ‘diaboliques’ of the film’s title. The dirty swimming pool is illustrative of the general neglect of the school and of its pupils, which begs the comparison to François Truffaut’s soon-to-be-made Les quatres cents coups (1959).
If the film’s famous penultimate scene has a feeling of over-familiarity, then it is illustrative of how iconic it has become; not as famous as ‘that’ shower scene, but nearly. And there is one other famous legacy that the film has left: two-thirds of the way through, a clumsy, unassuming, seemingly absent-minded police detective named Inspector Fichet shuffles onto the scene, and susses everything out before anyone else does. The shabby raincoat, the cigar, the battered car, the inane non-sequitur questions – i think all Peter Falk needed to add was the line ‘just one more thing’ in order to make his Columbo.