Glasgow Film Theatre, 31.03.11
My first encounter of a film adaption of the novel Celle Qui N’Etait Plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was the Hollywood version from 1996, Diabolique (Jeremiah Chechik), which was credited as ‘based on’ both the novel and this original French film from 1955, written and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The American version was a critical disaster, and rightly so. Over the top performances from the cast, including stars Sharon Stone and Chazz Palminteri, weren’t good, but the main failings were the responsibility of an inexperienced director. Coming from a background of music video directing, Chechik throws everything on to the screen in what quickly becomes a jumbled mess. Inconceivable plot twists, red herrings and melodrama abounds (witness thunder and lightning and pouring rain on queue). Chechik followed the debacle of Diabolique with another disaster in The Avengers, before finding relative success on the small screen as a director on TV series such as Chuck, Being Human and Gossip Girl.
So bearing this in mind, I went along to see the original French classic with some minor trepidations. Courtesy of a new restored print from the BFI, the film was showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a three-day run only. Les Diaboliques was the most successful of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s films, alongside Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), made two years earlier. The plot revolves around a French Boy’s school, owned by the young headmistress Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot), but run by her estranged husband Michel (Paul Meurisse), who is now having an affair with a fellow teacher, Nicole (Simone Signoret). Over the course of a holiday weekend Nicole and Christina, having had enough of Michel’s cruel treatment of them both, conspire to murder him and cover up their crime. But when the body mysteriously disappears, their plan starts to unravel.
Despite a memorably boisterous overture alongside the opening credits the first thing one notices is the general lack of bombast throughout the piece. There is very little music, most of the action occurs during daytime, the lighting and cinematography is natural for the most part and the performances from the leading cast well-balanced, with some comic relief provided by the school boys, fellow teachers and idiosyncratic neighbours. Indeed, before the final denouement there is an even mix of humour and psychological thrills. Gradually, as strange events take hold over the scheming couple, Clouzot cranks up the tension, but unlike the ill-fated American version he does this quite expertly and subtly, using long periods of silence, the use of space off-screen, sound effects and a steady shift to more dramatic lighting. All of which builds to a magnificent ending, the twist of which the audience is expressly asked not to reveal to those who have not seen the film. Suffice to say the suspense and tension in the audience at the screening I attended was quite palpable, which is the ultimate compliment for a film 56 years old. It is also what was entirely lacking from the American update, and nearly all horror or thrillers made in more recent times. One can only imagine what those responsible for the remake were trying to achieve, but they seem to have completely missed the point, and, as with many US remakes of European films, should have left well alone. If you have seen the modern version, don’t let that put you off taking in this magnificent film.
Les Diaboliques stands as an object lesson on how to scare an audience without resorting to loud bangs and gore.
Film Rating: 4.5 out of 5