Remember last week when I said I couldn’t really get on board with the hype and praise for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear?” Yeah, strike that and reverse it for his 1955 masterpiece, “Diabolique.”
This film is darn near perfect. Heck, it may be perfect but I always hesitate to call any film that when I’m still basking in the afterglow of having recently watched it. What matters is that you should watch this and you should know or read as little about the plot as possible before you do so. Also, ignore the apparently terrible 1996 remake starring Sharon Stone.
I’ll be as light on plot as possible, but all you really need to know is that the film centers on Christina (Vera Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret), the wife and mistress, respectively, of boarding school principal Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse). The women have had enough of Michel’s abuse and hatch an airtight plan to murder him.
The act goes off seemingly without a hitch. Until, that is, things take a twist that seems almost certainly impossible. To say more would be criminal. Let’s just say that the way things turn out would have made Hitchcock jealous that he didn’t get there first.
It’s an immaculately crafted mystery/thriller that shows just how effective such a simple set up and story can be when the director knows how to steadily twist the screws and slowly ratchet the inherent tension. In some ways, it’s a slow descent into madness as we never leave the point of view of Christina, and it’s from that point of view that things become interesting when looking at the film in the greater context of Clouzot’s work thus far.
It’s safe to say that the man is something of a pessimist, with an overall bleak outlook when it comes to humanity. His films are almost universally centered on flawed sinners, but almost never with any sort of redemption in play. That’s almost the case here as well, as the sins of these characters come back to haunt them with a vengeance. But here Clouzot isn’t simply pointing out and examining the sins of Christina as a form of existential examination, he’s using it to propel the film forward. Her panic and crisis of conscience are what make the film so compelling and give everything a sort of relevance and context that his past films lacked.
It really can’t be overstated, though, just how gripping that central mystery is. It’s something so simple and so straightforward, and yet it hooks its claws in you the moment it comes to light and Clouzot puts everything toward pushing us forward until the reveal. There’s not a single wasted moment, shot or character beat. It’s great, classic stuff.
This is the kind of film that is talked about when critics and cinephiles lament the death of restrained, classic filmmaking. There is little here that is flashy or in your face. Clouzot has never been much of a visual stylist, but he still manages to keep things moody without going overboard. He gets strong performances from his leads and winds things tightly to the point where you’re kept on the edge of your seat from beginning to end, all without any sort of manipulative tricks.
Next week, I’ll wrap up my series on Clouzot with a review of his documentary film, “The Mystery of Picasso.” Following that, I’ll be taking a look at some classic kung fu cinema, with reviews of films such as “The Big Boss” starring Bruce Lee, “Come Drink With Me,” “Young Master” starring Jackie Chan and “The Streetfighter” starring Sonny Chiba.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.