Diabolique, the French thriller by Henri-Georges Clouzot, is often called the most Hitchcockian movie that Hitchcock himself never made. We’ll look at that claim in a bit more detail later on, but for now it’s enough to say that despite its similarities with the work of the Master of Suspense, this 1955 classic has an identity all its own. The picture stars Simone Signoret (the first Academy Award winner from France) as Nicole, Véra Clouzot (the wife of the film’s director) as Christina, and Paul Meurisse as their mutual lover, Michel. Diabolique is described as one of “French cinema’s most acidulous films of the 1950s” thanks to Clouzot’s status as a “fatalist who saw life as a continuous battle” (Dixon & Foster, 147). This pessimistic worldview is certainly on full display in the picture, as it presents a winding tale of deceit, betrayal, and apprehension. Diabolique is an unrelenting, deliberate thriller, a film that builds a world in which nothing is certain.
The film begins in a boarding school owned and operated by Michel and his wife Christina. Christina is close friends with Nicole, a teacher at the school who happens to be Michel’s mistress. The two women are both physically abused by Michel and mutually decide to murder him. They lure him to Nicole’s apartment in a distant city, drown him in a bathtub, and then cart his body back to the boarding school to dump it in the swimming pool. If executed properly, the plan would make Michel’s death look like nothing more than a tragic accident; however, when the swimming pool is drained, Michel’s body is no longer there. Afterwards, the two women enter a state of shocked confusion and desperately seek to uncover the mystery of what happened to Michel’s body, to no avail. Finally, Christina hears a noise late at night and walks throughout the boarding school to investigate it until she reaches the bathroom; there, she sees Michel’s clammy body slowly rise out of the water, frightening Christina so much that her heart (already weak due to a chronic condition) gives out. Nicole walks out of a nearby room to meet Michel, and it is revealed that the whole “murder” was a ruse to kill Christina and take her fortune; this plan, however, is thwarted when a retired police officer overhears their conversation and catches the duo red-handed.
The many twists and turns of the film make it difficult to pinpoint a singular message within it. It’s a complex work. Oftentimes I found myself coming up with theories about what it’s saying, only to throw them out as the picture rounded the next sharp bend in the road. One theme, however, persisted for much of the film’s runtime, only to be seriously complicated by the plot’s final twist; that theme, a quasi-feminist message, is the necessity for women to band together with one another to overcome the vice grip of control that men exert over them. It’s perfectly encapsulated by a scene in which the two women are driving together across France to Nicole’s apartment in order to begin their scheme against Michel. As Christina drives, she expresses some trepidation about the upcoming murder to Nicole. To reassure her that killing Michel is the best course of action, Nicole tells Christina that Michel had expressed his desire for Christina herself to die so that he could live in peace with Nicole. Christina then asks how Nicole replied, and Nicole insinuates that at first she agreed with Michel because she was not good friends with Christina at the time. The women then drop the subject and return to the task at hand.
This scene captures the idea that women, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable male oppressor, must band together to overcome his rule. The conversation shows that the women have a tense, rocky past, but nonetheless they look past their former conflicts and steel themselves to tear down a common enemy. This scene leads the audience to believe that the film is a meditation on how women can overcome the powers that have dominated them in the past, how they must join together with other women to empower themselves. This message, however, is turned on its head when Nicole’s betrayal is revealed at the conclusion of the film. When the fact that Nicole was plotting against Christina the whole time is brought to light, deep feelings of betrayal and mistrust are evoked. The film turns from a message about how women will band together and take drastic action to improve their lot in life into a precautionary tale; those who present themselves as allies are not always on your side. They may purport to be your friend, they may even claim to be willing to commit murder for mutual benefit, but in the end everyone is looking out for their own interests. The film claims that nobody, even those who seem to have a common goal or a mutual enemy, can be fully trusted.
As somebody who has studied Hitchcock fairly extensively and enjoyed many of his films, one of the most enjoyable parts of watching Diabolique was tracing common threads between the French thriller and the work of the British master. Comparisons are often drawn between Diabolique and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and for good reason; both pictures craft weaving tales of deceit, double identities, and gruesome murders. The feelings of anxiety and dread that I experienced during Diabolique were remarkably similar to those that I experience when I watch Psycho. However, I think it’s also worth comparing the film to another of Hitchcock’s works, the slightly lesser known Rope. While Diabolique details the experiences of two women desperately trying to find a dead body, Rope tells the story of two men doing everything in their power to hide one from their party guests after they murder a man and leave his body in a chest. Both films are a fascinating inversion on the other, but despite their differences they manage to evoke similar emotions of trepidation. It seems entirely possible to me that the corpse-centric suspense of Rope helped inspire the similar thrills of Diabolique, which then went on to lay the groundwork for the two-faced excitement of Psycho. There’s a fascinating, weaving interplay between Clouzot and Hitchcock; it serves well to illustrate the iterative, collaborative development that the medium of cinema has gone through over the years. No matter what may have inspired Diabolique, or what it may have inspired itself, the French classic is a worthwhile thrill ride that stands up to modern audiences.