Les Diaboliques aka The Devils: psychological horror film thin on plot but thick with suspense, claustrophobia, tension and twisted endings

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques” aka “The Devils” (1955)

At first “Les Diaboliques” doesn’t seem anything like director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s previous film “Wages of Fear”: one is an action thriller about four truck drivers who undertake a dangerous journey and the other movie is a psychological horror study of two murderers. Look closely though and the similarities are there: there is a great deal of unnerving tension extended through most of the two movies that culminates in more than one climax, with a twist at the end; and the action takes place in an unsympathetic universe where people are exploited by other people in particular social, political and economic environments. The exploited characters may be driven to take whatever action they can, no matter how morally questionable that is, to free themselves from exploitation and to restore meaning and purpose to their lives. “Les Diaboliques” follows two such people who take what is clearly unlawful action to free themselves. One of the two experiences a new kind of prison, a psychological one, that threatens her health and her life as well.

Christina Delasalle and her husband (Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse) run a boys’ boarding school in Paris. She teaches several subjects and he as principal attends to the administration and paperwork. Michel is also having an affair with a teacher, Miss Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and moreover flaunts the romance openly so even the children giggle about it behind Christina’s back. He abuses both women physically and mentally but though she is unhappy and despondent, Christina refuses to divorce her husband due to her strong religious beliefs. Nicole, also unhappy, suggests to the wife that they work together to kill Michel. Christina hesitates at first but agrees. The women lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment in a small village during a public holiday when the school is closed and the boys have gone home; they get the tyrant drunk and drown him in a bath-tub full of water. They drive his body back to the school and dump it in the muddy, leaf-covered swimming pool. A few days later, the women find an excuse to drain the pool, only to discover the corpse has disappeared.

Bizarre incidents occur that suggest that Michel could be alive or his ghost is haunting the school, leaving Christina and Nicole seriously rattled. Christina starts searching for Michel’s corpse and meets retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who is personally interested in the case and begins to snoop around the school for clues in spite of her protests. While Fichet conducts his investigation, the women argue and bitch about who is more guilty of murder, and end up falling out. Nicole packs her bag and departs the school, and Christina is left alone and vulnerable to strange goings-on at night that hint that Michel is not only not dead but has come to harass her.

The tension and unease that extend throughout the movie are sustained by a combination of various filming methods and tricks such as the use of close-ups of objects or actions, odd camera angles and particular rotations of the camera as it follows an action or takes in an image; and clearly defined characters in Christina and Nicole whose differing personalities and views on morality highlight their susceptibility to pangs of conscience while the murder remains undiscovered and unsolved. Viewers know their alliance will be very short-lived. At the same time the teachers seem to have more than Michel in common and there are hints of a developing lesbian relationship with Nicole the bossy leader and Christina the passive, girlish partner. Signoret plays the forceful Nicole well. Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director, has a tougher job playing a resigned, submissive woman burdened by despair initially and then by guilt and self-abasement after the murder, but she holds up her part adequately enough. In the climactic bath-tub scene, Clouzot’s reaction to what she sees coming out of the water seems wooden and a little overplaying of fright and terror wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Slightly hammy acting in this scene would also support this writer’s idea that Christina might be playing Nicole and the other school staff for fools as suggested by the film’s coda that involves a boy and his slingshot.)

The film is at its strongest in scenes where Christina, though physically weak from nervous stress and guilt, leaves her bed at night to investigate an intrusion into Michel’s quarters at the school and walks through dark corridors towards a lit room; here the camera’s roaming, the snappy editing, the odd shots of moving legs or gloved hands sliding up bannisters, the unusual points of view emphasising the length of corridors or door angles illuminated by flashes of light from behind, and close-ups of Christina’s wide-eyed terror, all increase and prolong the tension to the movie’s climax. The voyeuristic style of filming which forces the viewers to follow and share Christina’s fright recalls the methods favoured by Clouzot’s more famous contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. “Les Diaboliques” also shares with many of Hitchcock’s films a black humour, especially in scenes between Christina and Fichet, who insists on offering his investigative services for free, and in scenes involving Nicole’s apartment neighbours who complain about the noise of the running bath-water above them.

Though the world where “Les Diaboliques” takes place is a depressingly mean-spirited and restricted one where characters exploit one another for selfish personal gain and freedom can be gained only by transgressing social and moral rules set up by equally selfish others, the whole movie seems thin compared to Hitchcock’s more layered, psychoanalytically influenced thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.  Plot discrepancies are very noticeable in “Les Diaboliques” and the audience needs to fill in blanks such as: how does Fichet work out what Nicole is doing with Michel’s corpse? what’s going on with Christina after two people are taken into police custody? could Fichet and Christina have been working together? – as director Clouzot, perhaps deliberately, leaves much unexplained about Christina’s fate after the end credits start to roll. Also if Clouzot had given a bit more back-story to both Christina and Nicole and allowed Michel a more rounded personality than simply making him a petty dictator, viewers might have felt more sympathy for the women as they struggle with their guilt, bad consciences and trying to justify to themselves and to each other that what they did to Michel was what he deserved. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and stereotyped: Christina as the passive, submissive good-girl wife who finds it difficult not to do as she’s told, Nicole as the icy bossy-boots schemer and Michel as all-out misogynist who marries only for money and dumps women when he sees fit.

“Les Diaboliques” is still worth a look though for the two trick endings and the way in which Clouzot builds up and maintains unease, suspense, and a sense of claustrophobia in the lead-up to the climax. Apart from this, the movie isn’t otherwise remarkable in the way it unfurls the narrative and yours truly has the feeling it sticks fairly closely to the original source material.

The film was based on a pulp crime fiction novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (known in English as “The Woman who was no more”) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac. According to legend and depending on which version of the legend you hear, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights to this novel by half an hour to several hours after finishing “Wages of Fear”. Boileau and Narcejac later offered Hitchcock the film rights to their next novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) which the British-American director made into “Vertigo”. Hitchcock must still have been a bit sore at losing the film rights to the earlier book as he set out to beat Clouzot at his own game and the result was the famous “Psycho”. Between “Les Diaboliques” and “Psycho”, viewers certainly will think twice about taking long baths or hot showers!

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