How dangerous it is to be a little devil. We all want to be precocious tykes getting into trouble for so long, but it comes back to bite us in the form of guilt and punishment.
“Diabolique” is a French thriller that makes us afraid of the dark, of ghosts and of taking baths all without being about any of those things. It’s essentially the story of an immature child who has done wrong and will drive herself insane trying to cover up her lie.
The star Vera Clouzot, the wife of “Diabolique’s” director Henri-Georges Clouzot, plays Christina, a delicate school teacher in a boarding school for boys. She’s the wealthy owner of the school, but it’s run with an iron fist by her vicious husband Michel (Paul Meurisse). She hesitantly hatches a murder scheme with a fellow teacher, Michel’s former mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). The two are well aware of their rivalry, but they’ve been united in hatred of Michel and his abusive ways.
They intend to run off together over the school’s break, lure Michel there, drug him and drown him in a bathtub. They’ll sneak him back to school and dump him in the school’s pool to make it look like a suicide or accident. But the pool’s scummy water makes him go undiscovered for days, and when the pool is finally drained, the body has vanished.
It’s a wonderfully Hitchcockian, psychological caper, and had Clouzot not bought the rights to the novel first, Hitchcock was in fact next in line.
And yet Clouzot’s style is not as pronounced as Hitch’s. There was an old Hitchcock adage that if a trunk with a bomb in it explodes, that’s action, but if the people play cards on top of it and it doesn’t, that’s suspense. But Hitchcock would always let you know that trunk was there. He was notorious for dropping clues and specific objects in plain sight and leading you on along the way. Clouzot simply introduces these elements when they are needed. The day after the murder takes place, Christina and Nicole are lugging a heavy trunk, and although we never saw them loading up the body, we can immediately ascertain that they are in danger of being discovered. Again, when the body turns up missing, Michel’s Prince of Wales suit remarkably turns up from the cleaners, and when a detective asked what became of it, he shuts a door and there it is hanging neatly pressed on a hook.
Rather, Clouzot builds suspense by playing up the childlike nature of Christina’s guilt. Christina is a devout Catholic haunted by the possibilities of her own sin, but it’s amplified by her defiance of her elders in the form of her older husband, her nature of being a “picky eater” in an early scene and how she is scolded by Nicole for her bad habit of biting her nails. Both Nicole and Michel are framed to dwarf her, and she appears horribly timid in the murder scene when Nicole shoves an unconscious Michel’s head underwater so easily as though she’s done it a thousand times before.The film asks that you dare not reveal the ending, but like a child with a secret to tell, “Diabolique’s” juicy finale eats away at you.