“Les Diaboliques”: Straddling Genres

I wrote this introduction for The Mesilla Valley Film Society’s screening of Les Diaboliques in May, 2023.

Movie scholars may quibble about tonight’s feature, Les Diaboliques (shortened to Diabolique for our small American brains), but I think this is one of those works that straddles the line between straight-up thriller and film noir. After all, it’s about two people committing a crime and then having the consequences of it follow them around…literally.

Released in 1955 and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this movie is adapted from the Pierroe Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel She Who Was No More. Clouzot’s wife Vera (who plays Christina in the film) brought the novel to the director’s attention. The insomniac filmmaker devoured it in one night after wrapping The Wages of Fear and optioned the screenplay rights immediately for his next project. This frustrated Alfred Hitchcock, who loved the book, but don’t worry about that guy; he’d get the rights to the next novel by Boileau and Narcejac to make Vertigo.

There are a lot of changes between the book and the movie but the core themes remain: bad things have a habit of catching up with you, and you can’t trust anyone. There’s an insurance scam that’s removed entirely from the screenplay and the gender of the murderers was switched to provide a beefier role to Vera. Interestingly, there’s a lesbian subplot in the original book that’s removed entirely and replaced here with some delicious subtext.1My wife, a queer woman, told me that she didn’t even realize that the relationship between Cristina and Nicole was supposed to be subtext.

Now, some quick bullet points before we start the picture:

  • Simone Signoret plays Nicole, Christina’s partner in crime. Clouzot met her through her husband Yves Montand, who he’d just directed in The Wages of Fear.2I’ll repeat this below but see this movie. He knew that his wife would need a strong co-star to bolster her performance and as you’ll see tonight, they really do have an amazing chemistry. Unfortunately, Signoret was only paid for eight weeks of work instead of the 16 she actually spent on the set thanks to a contract snafu.
  • Most of the movie was filmed in a house in Montfort-l’Amaury, across the street from where Clouzot had made the excellent Le Corbeau, a deliciously dark little drama about an anonymous letter-writer tearing apart a small town with libel.
  • Those of us from the VHS generation may remember that this was remade in 1996 with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani in the primary roles. That version got (rightfully) trashed in reviews and Sharon Stone said she should haven taken the offer to play a character with her name in The Flintstones instead.3I’ve always wondered how that version would have fared if it had been helmed by someone like Adrian Lyne instead of the guy that gave us Benny and Joon and the Uma Thurman/Ralph Fiennes The Avengers.
  • Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, said this was his favorite horror movie, stating: “I think that is the epitome of what the horror film should be. You’ll note there is very little bloodshed.”
  • Les Diaboliques did gangbusters in France, with over three and a half million tickets sold. American reviewers loved it, with The New York Times and Chicago Daily Tribune both writing plaudits and The National Board Of Review named it one of the best foreign films in 1955. However, across the pond, the British seemed to loathe it, with the Sunday Express saying that the film has a “calculated malevolence”4I don’t think that’s quite as much of an an indictment as they seemed to think it is. while the Daily Mirror wanted to know: “just how horrible can films get?”

I love this movie, and I’m pretty sure you will too. And again: If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and The Wages of Fear, I highly recommend them. As always, thanks to the team here at the Fountain Theatre for keeping things running. Next month, we’ll come back to the States with Alan Ladd and Veronica lake in The Blue Dahlia.





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