It’s the Hitchcock movie that never was.
Les diaboliques tells a tale of love, lust, oppression, revenge and loyalty. Set in a boys boarding school in post-war France, the story centres around the wife of an oppresive headmaster, the headmaster’s mistress, and a conspiracy to commit murder. No longer willing to receive the physical and mental abuse from her husband, Christina enlists the help of old friend, Nicole, in a plot to kill her husband, Michel, and make it look like suicide. After the dastardly act has been committed, things almost instantly take a turn for the worse for Christina, and her life quickly spirals into a living nightmare.
Crash, bang, wallop.
When a film moves this fast it’s easy to understand why keeping track of all the individual story elements becomes so difficult. This may sound like a derision, however it’s quite the opposite; Les diaboliques may be one of the most complete cinematic experiences in the history of the medium. It has everything you could want from a murder thriller; suspense, twists, fantastically-drawn characters and with realistic motivations, an exciting final act and some decent allegory/subtext. It’s common knowledge that Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense”, actually tried to purchase the rights to the movie but was pipped at the final hurdle by the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and it is testament to the French director’s vision that the film is a resounding success.
The sinew that tightly binds this story together is the triangular relationship between Christina, Nicole (Papa?) and Michel. There is an odd, mutual respect between the married couple, however she hates him regardless. He’s the ultimate patriarch and seems to represent archaic, sexist attitudes towards women. The disregard he shows to the females in the movie ultimately results in the heinous plot to end his life. He also strikes me as the allegorical representation of Nazi regime France, with his attitudes and dialogue; “What is this Bolshevism?” he barks at the children as he orders them around. He rules that school with an iron fist.
All of the scenes of murderous preparation pay off in some way as we gallivant deeper into the plot. Characters are introduced, some with fantastic cynicism and humour, which juxtaposes the horrific imagery and almost supernatural narrative nuances in the third act. It becomes easy to emotionally invest in the characters, even the lesser ones, and the way the story is constructed means we are always guessing where it will end up; the audience is one step behind and it feels damn good to be there because you can play detective.
Another thing that works so well in Les diaboliques is how the characters are blocked on set. Classic movies have a richer repertoire of camera movements, yet a much quieter way of editing shots together. This feels much more compelling because we aren’t made aware of the filmic techniques as easily; it’s the best Fourth Wall and helps enrich the story and characters.
The words timeless and classic are often bestowed on movies that still divide critical and popular opinion; here is the only rotten review on RT…written by ‘Variety staff’ aka King of the Plebs. Les diaboliques, despite being nearly 60 years old and subtitled in French (which is a problem for some people), is definitely a proud owner of the phrase “timeless classic”. It’s flawless storytelling, looks fantastic and has some twists and turns that have been emulated many a time yet not half as well. I would gladly watch this again today, and I strongly recommend any fan of film to get hold of this movie. If we did ratings here it would get the highest possible. SEE IT!