Les diaboliques

DIAB

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!

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Rope

ROPE

‘Did you think you were God, Brandon?’

In 2011, cinemagoers were treated to two feature films adapted from successful theatre plays. The Ides Of March and Carnage both had megastars the likes of Gosling, Clooney, Seymour Hoffman, Winslett, Waltz, C Riley and Foster chewing lines, both dealt with subtexts of contemporary socio-political themes, and both owed their respective productions to foregone, critically-acclaimed plays.

Another thing these two movies had in common, despite their origins, was their “film-like” aesthetic. They both used an active camera, shot- reverse- shots, two shots and the editing suite to give dimensions to conversations, characters and locations. The screenplay, in Ides especially, shed any link to the origins of the story and its theatre roots.

Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), also a stage play adaptation, differs in style. If you want to know the true story inspiration behind the play, read the spoilers. In the movie, Hitchcock employs an ambitious series of dolly shots (to use a term heavily associated with the director), pans and focus pulls to take us on a journey through the set, yet most of what we see happens in wide shot traverse. The actors and actresses occupy their marks – the camera and actor blocking is unmissable at times – yet there are numerous periods during the film where the audience has to be active in analysing the scene in its entirety. There are also a number of cuts that are employed to give the scenes a continuous take effect; the camera will pan behind a character and cause a diegetic cut to black, again paying homage to the continuous nature of theatre. Subsequently, Rope becomes a very ‘play-like’ movie.

We are all far too familiar with contemporary mainstream cinema. A cinema that suffers from the post-Bourne headache of crash zooms and pans, constant, pointless tracking shots framing mundane scenarios, epileptic editing and the art of not telling a story in under 120 mins. Even terrible films are written to run over at least 100 mins, which is too long when you’re watching something like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean; both of these films lack but a thread of good storytelling. It seems a shame that if you want to search for traditional forms of storytelling, you have to go back 60 years, seek out those ‘little independent, avant garde, foreign films’, or attend the theatre, where there seems more focus on character development, dramatic tension and acting as an art form.

Hitchcock, as well as using Rope to hone his adventurous camera skills, the likes of which were deployed in his 1950s seminal works (look them up), used this film to comment on the socio-political climate of the late-40s. The two main themes explored in this film are homosexuality, and the Nietzsche philosophy of the ‘ubermensch’; a philosophy warped by the Nazis during World War 2 that lead to the destruction of 6 million Jews, as well as millions more homosexuals, disabled, gypsies, partisans and communists.

The homosexual subtext is evident right after the first scene, in which the two protagonists converse after the murder of a peer. Lines such as ‘lets stay like this for a while’ when they embrace after the release of the murder – a release that appears more like post-coitum elation; ‘I wish we could do it in broad daylight with the curtains open’; and the lighting of a cigarette, a popular trope related to shagged-out lovers. There is also the constant reference to the murder as ‘it’, a term ambiguous enough to relate to homosexuality, which at the time was a highly controversial subject, especially one to be dealt with in cinema; homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Britain up until 1960.

The other main subtext, or allegory in Rope, is the fact that the main character believes he can murder the inferior purely because he feels superior and therefore has the right to make that choice. Clearly this is a reference to the Holocaust, an event that began some 7 years before this film was released. The idea of ‘supermen’ or ‘ubermensch’ spawned the Nazi ideology of inferior humans, or the subspecies, which is the main point touched upon by the narrative of Rope.

And now to commit the cardinal sin of writing and change person. I had actually seen Rope once before, and genuinely fell in love with the film. It is ambitious, tense, I love use of allegory or subtext [which more directors should employ because we audiences aren’t dumb]. Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors of all time because I absolutely love the way he uses the camera and lens, and Rope is arguably one of his more technical projects, which I commend.

Then at whom is Hitchcock’s Rope aimed? If you are a fan of generic blockbusters in which you cannot see arse from elbow, Rope is not for you. If you are looking for a film and don’t care about pacing, or more to the fact, if you love how a camera can help build tension, watch Rope. If you love the theatre and seeing plays, watch Rope. If you like Hitchcock, well you get the idea.