not in our stars, but in ourselves
Quelle horreur! There’s deviltry of all sorts in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955). Before I begin the review in earnest, I would like to note that the source material for this film was Celle qui n’était plus (or, for you non-francophones, She Who Was No More) by Boileau-Narcejac. That writing duo was, as you’ll recall if you’re really up on your film history, also responsible for D’entre les morts (roughly, Among the Dead) – the basis for Vertigo (1958). I’ll get back to that point in a bit, but I want you to bear it in mind.
At a drab boarding school outside Paris, Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) seem to have struck up an unlikely friendship. Mme Delassalle is the long-suffering wife of tyrannical Michel (Paul Meurisse), and Mlle Horner is his mistress. They have both suffered emotional, psychological, physical, and who knows what other kinds of abuse at Michel’s hands – and they’ve had enough. Mme Delassalle is actually quite rich, but Michel calls all the shots. Technically, she owns the school, but Michel is the principal – and a cruel one at that. Mlle Horner suggests that they lure him away from campus during school vacation, kill him, and free themselves and the school of him forever. Mme Delassalle, an emotionally scarred, devoutly Catholic woman with a heart condition, is extremely nervous about the prospect of committing murder. Nevertheless, she goes along with it: the two women travel to Mlle Horner’s hometown, Niort, and Mme Delassalle calls Michel to inform him that she wants a divorce. He bites. He takes the train down to Niort to confront his wife, verbally and physically abuses her, and then drinks some drugged whiskey. The women move him from the bed where he passed out to a full bathtub, and they drown him.
After a long and difficult process to transport the body back to the school (specifically, to its swimming pool), they hope to feel some measure of relief. Alas. It is crucial that I stop synopsizing at this point, but take my word for it: merde happens. Merde happens for real.
There are a number of striking features about Diabolique, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was the complete lack of a musical score. There’s music during the opening and closing credits, and there’s some diegetic music (meaning music that is happening within the action of the film, or the diegesis – as opposed to extradiegetic music, which is music that the characters within the film can’t hear, but that we, the lucky people in the audience, can hear). But there’s no score as such. And the effect is eerie. The comparisons with Hitchcock, especially given the similar sources for their two masterpieces, are inevitable. However, Hitchcock always used music as one of his filmmaking tools. It was one of the ways he ensured that the audience felt exactly how and what he wanted them to feel – whether the lushly romantic “Scene d’Amour” from Vertigo or the shrill stabbing violins of Psycho (1960) – and it is present in each of his sound films (other than The Birds ). But in Diabolique, we have no music. There’s nothing to give us hints, nothing to let us know what to expect. Silence can, when it’s used correctly, be even more terrifying than a cacophony of sound and fury. It is surely used correctly here.
Beyond the creepiness of the lack of music, there’s also a bit of heartbreak. With Michel and Christina Delassalle, we get a miserably accurate portrait of an abusive marriage. It’s the insidious little things – the ways he ensures that she doesn’t believe in herself, the way he forces her to rely only on him, the way he makes her think that he would be the wronged party if they were ever to break up – that make it more than just a caricature of a bad marriage. I hope, dear readers, that none of us have ever been in such a relationship – but we’ve all probably heard of them. It’s not always as clear as a black eye. It can be as muddy as the stagnant pool into which the women dump Michel’s body.
That brings me back around to my original point, about the Boileau-Narcejac connection between Diabolique and Vertigo. They both seem to be virulently anti-marriage. I’d have to read the books themselves, as well as other examples of the authors’ work, but if these two films are accurate representations of the thematic contents of their source material, then dear our dear messieurs were no fans of matrimony. In Diabolique, there’s a philandering husband who thinks he’s within his rights to beat and belittle both his wife and his mistresses; the women in his life decide to seek revenge against him by murdering him. In Vertigo, there’s another philandering husband who wants to get his wife’s insurance money, so he concocts an elaborate ghost story to make it seem that she kills herself when he’s the one who kills her. The supernatural elements of both films are there simply to obfuscate the sad reality of failed relationships and cruel people. In France, the title is Les Diaboliques – The Devils. Boileau-Narcejac seemed to have an abiding interest in the devil within us all.