1955 // France // Henri-Georges Clouzot // September 6, 2011 // Hulu Plus
There's a specific kind of thrill to be had in re-discovering a classical-era film one has seen before, but only remembers vaguely, an enjoyment that is somehow distinct from that of a genuine first-time encounter. So it is with Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece, Les diaboliques, which I had seen many years ago, and had become unfortunately entangled in my memory with the 1996 American remake. The remarkable thing about Clouzot's film is how efficient it is in setting up its premise, and then ratcheting up the tension with one uncanny twist and perilous development after another. What's more, Nicole and Christina's scheme is already unfolding when the film opens, and Clouzot does a commendable job of conveying exactly what the women have in mind for the monstrous Michel, all without resorting to stilted dialog. I adore the way that every character in the film save the three principals is presented as vaguely comedic, from the crotchety tenants to the school's faculty, from the drunken soldier to Charles Vanel's oddly insistent retired police detective. Far from being a distraction, the tone of light absurdity serves to heighten the sensation that the women's murderous plot is unraveling and slipping through their hands. Of course, the film's hidden, second-tier story—the gaslighting of a vulnerable woman in order to kill her—is hardly original stuff, but I'm hard-pressed to think of another example that is presented with such lean, nasty potency.