Diabolique (France, 1955)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Floating around the art house circuit these days is a restored version of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 murder mystery, Diabolique. Easily overlooked because of its limited re-release distribution, this picture may demand some active searching to unearth. It is well worth the effort. With a deliciously curvy and complex plot, Diabolique is a masterpiece of suspense -- as accomplished as anything done by Hitchcock. (In fact, Clouzot was occasionally referred to as "the French Hitchcock.")

Unlike many noir thrillers, Diabolique uses as much time to refine its characters as to develop the plot. By never pushing the film's more contrived aspects to an excess, Clouzot crafts a gripping, chillingly believable scenario. The moments of irreverent humor are seamlessly incorporated so as not to disturb the overall tone. With its keen insight into the base aspects of human nature, Diabolique has a great deal more to offer than a traditional genre entry. If you're looking for a reason to believe the best about our species, this is not the movie to see. Pessimism abounds, from the opening frame to the ambiguous conclusion.

The less said about the plot, the better, since any excess of detail is likely to afford an unwanted peek around one of Diabolique's many corners. In essence, this is the story of two women who join in an unlikely conspiracy to murder one man. The intended victim is Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), a despicable person who abuses his women while flaunting his mistress in front of his wife. The potential killers are Christina Delasalle (played by Vera Clouzot, the director's wife), the ailing, fragile wife; and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), the mistress who wears sunglasses to conceal her latest shiner.

The three leads turn in impeccable performances. Paul Meurisse gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man with no redeeming qualities. Michel Delasalle is a nasty piece of work. In his position as the director of a boarding school, he's the boys' worst nightmare. Simone Signoret is suitably no-nonsense as the practical mistress - cool and regal, with only a hint of suppressed sexuality. And Vera Clouzot is an effective blend of meekness and steel as the wife who is both repelled by and enticed by the thought of killing her wretched husband. Christina has turned her cheek for the last time.

Atmosphere is another of Diabolique's undeniable strengths. The black-and-white cinematography captures the sense of foreboding and makes it tangible. It's virtually impossible to watch this movie and not feel an occasional shiver of dread. Clouzot and cinematographer Armand Thirard set up every shot carefully, for maximum effect. One cannot imagine this movie made in color.

Perfectly paced and constructed with diabolical cleverness, this film represents a pinnacle in atmospheric suspense. The restored print, which includes several previously-trimmed scenes, is clean and crisp, making Diabolique every bit as enjoyable as Hollywood's best current offerings.

Diabolique (France, 1955)

Ranked #37 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1