31 Scary Movies: ‘Diabolique’

“Diabolique” (1955) – The cover-up is worse than the crime.

In the case of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s sensational “Diabolique” (1955), the cover-up morphs into something much more: unbearable paranoia and a deep mystery.

It is not a mystery that Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot) isn’t happy.  She enjoys her job as a teacher and an owner of Delassalle Boarding School, but she’s married to a boorish jerk, Michel (Paul Meurisse).

He openly cheats with another teacher, Nicole (Simone Signoret), and when Michel actually spends time with Christina, he usually browbeats her.  Michel, the school’s principal and former tennis star, also practices his backhands on Nicole’s and Christina’s faces with frequency as well.

So when Nicole talks about murdering him, Christina – who is generally timid and has a heart condition – isn’t 100 percent on board with the idea, but, without question, she sees nobility of the nefarious act.  They ladies decide to attempt the murder, but Clouzot leaves plenty of space where snafus could get in the way of their master plan and constructs a confounding puzzle.  A tense and complex story, “Diabolique” plays on our fears and curiosity under a guise of baffling circumstances.

The always self-assured Nicole discovers that her confidence begins to wane, and Christina’s second thoughts about the sinister deed becomes her primary one, as Signoret and Vera Clouzot are excellent here as the unlikely pair.  Nicole and Christina are flawed women, who are planning the very worst of crimes, but we do sympathize with them and their plight under a Hitchcockian-like atmosphere.

Speaking of directors, Henri-Georges Clouzot takes enormous care with skillful camera angles and shots that unsettle and jolt, and also masterfully plays with shadows and light throughout the picture as well.  Whether the striking of a match brings an eerie glow to Christina’s face, or a peering light slits through the doorway down a long dark hallway, the lighting itself almost becomes another character in Clouzot’s picture.

“Diabolique” truly is a pitch-perfect step into noir that still holds up as one of the most stylish and well-crafted thrillers of all-time, as it drags us into the confounding mess that Nicole and Christina create.

At one point Christina says to Nicole, “My heart is going to explode.”

You might feel exactly the same way.

Image credits: UMPO; Trailer credits: CriterionCollection

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