Its opening credits appear over the face of a scum-slathered swimming pool. Before long it’ll convert a bathtub into an instrument of murder, and that neglected pool will become an improvised sepulcher, enveloping human remains when full, resembling an open grave when drained. The very sight of it transformed into an empty cavity causes a woman to faint. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” someone remarks in explanation. Diabolique (1955) is an immaculately controlled study of corruption, hinging on the precarious alliance that might be taken up by a wife and her husband’s mistress upon agreeing that some people truly deserve to die. It’s also among the most elegant examples of the cinema’s use of water as a sort of liquid abyss, something mysterious, unstable, untrustworthy, and often tellingly opaque.
Diabolique was the seventh feature from director Henri-George Clouzot and the high-water mark of his commercial and critical success. Liberally adapted from the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose narrative conception was similar, though it featured a very different configuration of characters), the film brims with Clouzot’s characteristic evocation of rampant dread and decay. Set in a dreary provincial boy’s school, the story concerns the killing of the sadistic, miserly headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) by his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife), daughter of a wealthy Venezuelan family and the school’s financial benefactor, and Nicole (Simone Signoret), one of the school’s teachers and Michel’s undisguised lover. Their world is already poisonous: the staff is largely uninterested in or simply cruel to the students, the salads are spoiled and the fish is rotten (which doesn’t dissuade Michel from forcing Christina to eat it in the film’s most appallingly unforgettable scene of humiliation). Someone mentions that it’s important to take holidays because “the body needs to eliminate its toxins,” yet it’s difficult to imagine how long a holiday one would require to flush out all the toxic sludge, both literal and figurative, that might accumulate in one’s body while existing in this place.
The murder of Michel seems to go off without a hitch, until his body, transported in a large basket (rhymes with casket) and deposited in the school’s pool, fails to stay put. There’s a secret, malevolent force at work that may or may not be supernatural (and the film’s final scene maintains this ambiguity even after it seems to have been resolved). The ongoing failure to secure knowledge of Michel’s corpse’s whereabouts begins to grind away at the women’s psyches, most notably that of Christina, who suffers a heart condition and seem the more guilt-ridden of the two. Though less experienced than her costars, Véra Clouzot (who herself suffered a heart problem, one that would end her life only five years alter) gives a superb performance, imbuing Christina with a distinctive fragility that reveals itself only gradually, building up to a climatic scene that encloses the actress in a Val Lewtonesque chamber of shadows and dread, and capitalizes beautifully on her arresting eyes and physical rigidity. Signoret is characteristically confident and intriguingly evasive, her coolness recalling some of Lauren Bacall’s best performances from the previous decade. Clouzot’s exacting approach to suspense, notably devoid of scoring, depended greatly on his leads to map out the incremental twists in the narrative, and Madame Clouzot and Signoret fulfill their duties and some.
Criterion’s new DVD and blu-ray release of Diabolique (which they originally released on DVD man years ago now) arrives with a gorgeous new transfer, new cover art, and new special features, most notably an interview with historian Kim Newman concerning the film’s influence on countless thrillers and horror films. Yet the filmmaker who most readily springs to mind whenever I watch Diabolique is one that Newman fails to mention: Roman Polanski, whose morbid humour, commitment to high craftsmanship, fascination with perversion and penchant for nosy neighbours make him a very strong candidate for the contemporary filmmaker whose best work most closely resembles that of Clouzot’s.