This article will discuss the plot of Les Diaboliques in full and therefore contain major plot spoilers
Now that Les Diaboliques has been been released on Blu Ray, twice, once by Criterion (Region A) and once by Arrow (Region Free, UK) it seems like an appropriate time to revisit one of cinema’s most enduring thrillers. It might be thought that the film would seem dated or that the constant imitations and ought right theft of the central plot twist in every prime time mystery show of the last fifty years would leave a modern audience unimpressed, feeling they’ve seen all of this before. However, on seeing the recently restored print at the BFI a few months ago, it was most reassuring (and completely wonderful) to hear several disbelieving gasps as Nicole and Michel congratulate themselves on the successful completion of their plot, followed by amused discussion of the young boy’s curious reacquisition of his slingshot at the very end. Les Diaboliques remains a perfectly plotted crime thriller, complete with some of the most disturbing imagery ever captured on celluloid.
So then, the plot. As the film opens, we meet Christina (Vera Clouzot) – The Wife, and Nicole (Simone Signoret) – The Mistress, who is wearing dark glasses after, it seems, receiving a black eye from the film’s apparent villain, Michel (Paul Meurisse) – The Husband. Oddly, Christina seems very concerned about Nicole’s injury and seeks to comfort her, and this strange camaraderie between wife and mistress is remarked upon by two of the other teachers of the boarding school at which the central trio live and work. Later on we see the women discussing a plan to get rid of Michel, who has obviously been causing both of them not a little pain. The plan goes off without too much trouble, but then, the body disappears and Michel’s presence begins to make itself felt in unexpected ways….
of course this is only the beginning of the plot we think we see throughout the film (and you might want to look away now if you ignored the spoiler warning and blatant mention in the first paragraph) as it transpires that Michel really is the villain of this piece and along with Nicole has concocted a diabolical plot involving his wife’s fragile heart, her religious mentality, and his own faked death. The scene where he rises out of the bath tub, with those strange (and painful looking) dead man contact lenses is one of the most iconic in cinema history – truly chilling. However, Michel and Nicole have not counted on the perspicacity of the retired policeman Fichet who is there to rob them of their final triumph. Not content with this masterful plot twist, Clouzot seeks to tease us again, although we see Christina die, we are presented with the mystery of the small boy and his slingshot, which he says was just returned to him by the headmistress, who we know to be dead. This is the same small boy who was accused of lying about seeing the ‘deceased’ Michel earlier in the film, whom we now know to have been telling the truth. So, is Christine really dead? is her ghostly presence inhabiting the school? or did Fichet manage to save her life after all? or is the boy lying this time? We’ll never know, Clouzot just wanted to leave us with that one last note of uncertainty to completely mess with our heads once and for all.
It is Christina, whose apparent death we finally witness, that we’ve sympathised with all the way through. We can see right from the beginning that she’s terrorised by her cruel husband Michel – carrying on with another woman right in front of her, forcing her to eat rotten fish, forcing her off screen where it’s implied he will beat and rape her. We are right behind her desire to kill Michel, we can see that this is the only way out of an unbearable situation for her, and we are eager to release from that torment. She can’t divorce him as she’s a strict Catholic, and he likely wouldn’t consent to a divorce because he’s dependent on her money. She owns the school but he controls it. We also sympathise with Nicole who it seems is under some sort thrall to Michel although he also beats her and she isn’t tied to him in any way, perhaps we buy into her desire to eliminate Michel in revenge for the humiliation she has suffered. Nicole is the driving force behind the initial plan convincing Christina to go through with it, forcing her hand when she wavers. However, it is Nicole who ‘appears’ to crumble as things start to go wrong, for a brief period Christina becomes the dominant woman and Nicole ‘panics’ as the relationship between the two women becomes fraught and they both goad each other to go the police. Though of course Nicole’s actions here are completely calculated to place further stress on Christina, she obviously is fully aware of what’s really going on. In fact the character of Nicole is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, she must be the most diabolical of all the characters – appearing to comfort and console Christina whilst leading her to her death so that she can have the loathsome Michel and all of Christina’s money. Why she thinks Michel will be any more well disposed to her than he’s been to Christina is anyone’s guess, but then perhaps she really is in that much thrall to him.
Indeed the relationship between the two women both one of the most central aspects of the film and one of the most ambiguous. In the novel which served as the source material for the screenplay (Celle Qui N’Etait Plus by Boileau & Narcejac who also wrote the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Vertigo) the plot twist is reversed. A man and his mistress plot to kill his wife, but haunted by the crime he eventually kills himself and it turns out that the two women are lovers and have plotted together to get rid of the husband, and in the novel they get away with it. Clouzot, probably rightly, assuming such a scandalous affair would never get through the censors, and probably wouldn’t be accepted by the audience even if it did altered the original plot to a slightly more conventional situation. However, throughout the film, the two women appear very close, they’re very tactile and are often posed like a couple, see the way Nicole holds Christina’s arms when persuading her to call Michel in Niort and at several other points in the film. They are seen to share a bed on more than one occasion and at least once they get back to the school there’s no logistical reason for them to do so. The scene where Nicole decides to leave also resembles a typical thwarted lovers parting scene, Nicole’s ‘Do You Hate Me?’ is particularly potent. Is Christina telling her to go because she’s going to confess, or because she doesn’t trust her anymore? Were the two women lovers, is this another motive for the murder of Michel? and of course, this is looking even worse for the already pretty awful looking Nicole, was she sleeping with both of them? Did she like Christina at all, did she have some remorse for what was about to happen? Who can say, but she does seem fairly ecstatic afterwards.
Clouzot’s typically bleak world view is very much in evidence here. Christina aside (and even she’s a murderess, albeit an unwilling one) no one comes out of this film looking particularly good. Does the policeman really let Christina die as punishment for her part in the hypothetical crime? Perhaps he has a plan in place to save her afterwards and whip her out as a sensational witness at the trial but even so it’s quite an ordeal he leaves her to suffer. You also have to wonder why no one is investigating standards at this school, did none of the children complain about the rotten fish, how much are their parents paying for this sort of thing? but I digress. Clouzot succeeds in piling up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable by the end, this has to be one of the most successful suspense films ever made. Even if the twist appears obvious to the modern viewer the final scenes still succeed in being genuinely thrilling!
As for the Blu Rays, as far as picture quality goes Criterion is the winner as the Arrow is slightly cropped and although both releases look occasionally soft the higher bit rate on the Criterion really pays off. As for extras both offer very interesting supplements, I would probably advocate the Arrow as the video introduction from Ginette Vincendeau is indispensable (and much longer than expected!) and the full length commentary by Susan Heywood more informative than the selected scene commentary provided by Criterion. Though the introduction provided by Criterion is also very good and the short piece by Kim Newman is very interesting as well. Fans of the film who have the ability to play A coded discs would benefit from double dipping on both editions, but as always your choice is pretty much decided for you by your region of residence and both have their merits. Les Diaboliques remains a prime example of the thriller genre and a must see for anyone interested in psychological horror.