May 17, 2011

DVD of the Week: Diabolique

By Vadim Rizov


American movies, for whatever reason, are low on killings that take place in bathtubs and swimming pools. The French, on the other hand, have several films that famously make soaking yourself in water a charged event: 1969's La Piscine has a brutal pool-side forced drowning, and the centerpiece of Diabolique is a messy tub murder. The atmosphere is fetid from the opening shot, a scum-level view of a pool, which becomes increasingly important after Christina (Vera Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret) kill Christina's brutal husband, school headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), and dump his corpse in the pool. When it doesn't rise to the top, the pool is drained, revealing a striking lack of dead people. Where's Michel? Numerous shots of puddles large and small hammer the question home.

Nominally a thriller, Diabolique (newly re-released on DVD in a digitally restored print via Criterion) is a pitch-dark comedy about taking responsibility and assigning blame. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1943 The Raven (Le Corbeau, a not-so-thinly veiled parable against French collaboration with the Nazis, nearly destroyed his career, but his post-war work started immediately jabbing again at the post-war French republic. Both 1947's Quai des Orfevres and Diabolique have real mysteries at their core, and both deliver satisfying twists and resolutions, but the larger focus is on people working as hard as possible to avoid being indicted for or accused of anything. Guilt is merely a question of plausible deniability; as Christina and Nicole have a falling out, they both threaten to present their own plausible defenses to the police and leave the other person hanging.

It's an occupation mentality: when the authorities finally come to account for the dead and missing, who'll have something to be ashamed of or hide? Will the wrong person take the blame, and the real malefactors escape punishment? Decades before The Sorrow And The Pity, mainstream French cinema was working out its feelings about occupation and collaboration in not-so-subtle ways.


Christina and Nicole establish their alibis by luring Michel, unseen, to an apartment in Paris; they plan to kill him there, then plant the body at the school. The apartment building is shared by Mme. Herboux (Thérèse Dorny) and her tiresome husband (Noël Roquevert), who just wants to listen to the radio. Annoyed by the late-night sound of water running for the bath, he sits down to write a registered letter of complaint: his right, he pompously announces, as a citizen. Meticulously noting what time the water goes on and off, he takes the best witness testimony and written evidence any prosecutor could ask for as a matter of course. Later, to drive the point home, he offers to lend the women a steel suitcase whose indestructibility he vouches for by noting it survived the "retreat of 1940," when the French ceded Paris and the nation to invading Nazi forces.

In a nation unable to think honestly about its part in wartime and potential complicity with occupiers, it's not surprising that the children pay the price in intellectual honesty. Suffice it to say that Delasalle may not be dead, but any child bold enough to testify to having seen him is punished for dishonesty: some things should be witnessed but not testified to. One boy testifies that he feels like he "fucked up" after showing a private detective a key piece of evidence, and the final image is of a child sent to stand in the corner once again, after claiming to have seen someone they're sternly told couldn't have been there.

In an atmosphere this paranoid and furtive, it's not terribly surprising when abusive Michel berates Christina for having the nerve to tell a lawyer "our secrets" (i.e., that he's physically, mentally and sexually mistreating her). Silence is the default mode; what makes Diabolique comic is that the characters are constantly inappropriately, rudely honest and open with each other in a way that would make Noah Baumbach's collected misanthropes feel right at home. Michel tells his wife he's waiting for her death and schoolmasters cluck over the inappropriateness of a "wife consoling the mistress"; Nicole's overtly contemptuous treatment of her neighbors is a master class in exuding disdain.


Everyone's in a bad mood, underpaid (the school itself is seedy and worn-down, with understandably exasperated staff and students) and default rude. That makes the last-minute shift in Diabolique — a dreamlike finale that suddenly kicks the film from grimy portrait of worn-down people and places to surreal visions that may or may not be hallucinations — all the more effective, an escape from drab reality that turns, with very little prodding, into an overt waking nightmare.

[Editor's note: The very worthy Criterion DVD extras include selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway; a new video introduction by Serge Bromberg, co-director of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno and a new video interview with U.K. novelist and film critic Kim Newman.]

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Posted by cphillips at May 17, 2011 12:39 PM


This movie is a really famous one. Paul Meurisse have been a great actor, I like him.
You talk about two other very fine movies: Le Corbeau, and, Quai des Orfèvres. For people willing to know a bit of great old french movies, I recomand them. Le Corbeau has a heavy atmosphere. Quai des Orfèvres allows to see Louis Jouvet, a great and famous actor... :)

Posted by: Evelyne at May 27, 2011 12:35 PM
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