Film Review: Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques is a first-rate mystery that retains tension right up to its memorable conclusion. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film is a must see for suspense fans.

Michel Delassalle is a cruel headmaster at a boys’ boarding school. His ailing wife Christina and his mistress Nicole conspire to murder him, distressed by his sadistic ways. After the crime has been committed, the two women are plagued by macabre events…

Les Diaboliques is a fine example of how a suspense thriller should work. Pacing in the film is good. A generous portion of Les Diaboliques is dedicated to whether the women will actually carry out their plan. Their apprehension serves a dual function. On the one hand, it reveals that the women are desperate and at their wits’ end, rather than depraved killers without good motive. On the other, it allows sufficient build up to emphasise the eeriness of events that take place after the crime has been committed.

Les Diaboliques keeps the audience guessing throughout. The film is an excellent illustration of how well the fantastic can work in cinema. It is one of those rare kinds of film that retains the balance between the real and the supernatural until the very end. The events that take place can be ascribed to supernatural forces, but they can also be explained by a rational explanation. It is unclear which direction the film is heading, even in the dramatic climax.

The trepidation in Les Diaboliques is generated through considered use of lighting and camera work. The ending in particular employs lighting to a great extent. The dimly-lit corridors are enhanced by the over-the-shoulder shots and edits to different rooms in the building. Interestingly, the visuals of Les Diaboliques are not accompanied by a score. With so many films relying at least partially on music to generate tension, Clouzot instead relies upon the silence to enhance the eerie atmosphere. It is a remarkably successful tactic.

Performances in the film are good. Simone Signoret as Nicole stands out in particular. Signoret accurately conveys the character’s steeliness, as well as her trepidation. Elsewhere, Paul Meurisse is effective as the cruel headmaster Michel.

Les Diaboliques holds up well even today, even after fifty-six years. It stands amongst Clouzot’s best films from a distinguished cinematic career.

Les Diaboliques is being screened at the British Film Institute from 18th March 2011, as well as at selected venues across the UK.