Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Production: Filmsonor (Paris); black and white, 35mm; running time: 110 minutes. Released 1954. Filmed in France.
Producer: Louis de Masure; screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, and Frédéric Grendel, from the novel Celle qui n'était plus by Boileau and Narcejac; photography: Armand Thirard; editor: Madeleine Gug; sound: William-Robert Sivel; production designer: Léon Barsacq; music: Georges van Parys.
Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole); Véra Clouzot (Christina); Paul Meurisse (Michel); Charles Vanel (Fichet); Jean Brochard (Plantiveau); Noël Roquevert (M. Herboux); Georges Chamarat (Dr. Loisy); Jacques Varennes (Professor Bridoux); Michel Serrault (M. Raymond).
Awards: Prix Louis Delluc (France), 1955; New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film (shared with Umberto D), 1955.
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Henri-Georges Clouzot is a key member of the generation of filmmakers who emerged during the Occupation and dominated French cinema for a dozen years or so after the war. Les diaboliques is not a masterpiece to rank with such earlier Clouzot films as Le corbeau or Le salaire de la peur, but its particular contradictions allow the principal aspects of what was later to be dubbed the "tradition of quality" to be clearly observed.
The political events of these years—the war in Indo-China leading to the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and the beginning of the Algerian revolution which was to lead to eight years of savage fighting and eventually bring down the Fourth Republic—are ignored, and Clouzot, like so many of his contemporaries, offers a studio reconstruction of the world which is meticulously realist in detail, but essentially timeless. Les diaboliques is set in one of Clouzot's favorite locations—a shabby, rundown provincial school—and the tensions here between a bullying headmaster, his ailing wife and forceful mistress are methodically set up. The craftsmanship involved in the creation of this world is enormous, and nothing is allowed to stand between the director and his conception of his film. Before 1939 actors had been the monstres sacrés of French cinema and every aspect of a film was subordinate to their will. But Clouzot was from the first renowned for the harsh treatment he meted out to his actors. If the story that he served bad fish to the actors in Les diaboliques and made them eat it so as to capture an authentic sense of disgust is probably apocryphal, it certainly conveys perfectly his essential attitude.
The 1940s and early 1950s was also a time of the totally scripted film in which the diversity and contradictions of life were reduced to a single narrative line relentlessly followed. Though there might be a rich counterpoint of incident as well as the creation of multiple ironies, there was no space for gaps within the plot which would unfold with all the precision of a watch mechanism. In works like Le corbeau and Quai des Orfèvres, Clouzot had shown himself to be a master of the thriller structure, with all the subtle manipulation of audience responses which that implies. But as so often in other aspects of his work, Clouzot seems to have been driven by a desire to take the creation of suspense to extreme limits. For him, as for his contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, whom he much admired, there could be no half measures. In Les diaboliques Clouzot is tempted into a display of his own narrative skills, and the logic of the film, which has plotted its first murder with brutal precision, is slowly taken apart. Inexplicable things start to happen, and the spectator's confidence in his own perceptions, in the truth of what he has seen and heard, is undermined. The contradictions are resolved in a virtuoso passage of plot twisting in the final reel, but this very ingenuity destroys the psychological realism on which the film's opening is constructed. Les diaboliques is exhilarating at first viewing, and proved to be both commercially successful and controversial on its first release. For most critics, however, the contrivance of the ending renders a second viewing meaningless, since it underlines the film's remoteness from a livid reality and even makes Clouzot's deeply felt black vision seem trite and superficial.