A "Heartless" Crime: Diabolique (1955)
Which one is the bigger mystery: Who commits the crime, or who eventually “pays” for it?
Diabolique (1955) by Henri-George Clouzot, known as France’s master of suspense and its counterpart to Hitchcock, has set the bar for many psychological horror classics that followed it, including Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Loosely based on the 1952 novel Celle qui n’etait plus, the story is about the murder of the despicable boarding school director Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) by the two women in his life: his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot), weak and crushed under her husband’s abuse and cruelty but unable to walk away, and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), tough, practical, and unburdened by pangs of guilt to start plotting revenge. After Nicole convinces Christina that murder is the only reasonable and effective way out for both, the two women execute the plan and wait for the body to discovered … only to be thrown into greater anxiety when it unexplainably disappears. Flustered and fearful, Christina slowly descends into a mental and physical breakdown, as uncanny events unfold one after the other.
The film is brilliantly staged and shot, with a framing that mixes elements of early noir with conventions of horror and suspense, and the banal heartlessness of the boarding school setting provides a perfect background to what is ultimately a story of manipulation reminiscent of Gaslight (1944). It is a shame that the romantic-sexual subplot between the women in the source material has been redacted; nonetheless, the dynamic of the relationship between the characters hints at a backstory of a queer love triangle.
Although contemporary audiences might not be as surprised by the denouement, it is worth noting that the plot was found to be quite shocking at the time of its release, anchoring the film’s status as a horror classic early on, regardless of mixed reviews. Clouzot’s success lies in telling the story of Christina’s guilty conscience in an impressive yet still intimate way, so that we identify her descent from doubt to worry to fear of losing her mind.
One last hint for future viewers: be on the lookout for the boy who cried wolf.