The Perfect Executed Murder
Despite a far more prolific and far less erratic career than his contemporaries, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique has become synonymous with the director’s name. Clouzot’s mastery of storytelling shaped his later films; ultimately, he studied the art of story structure early in his career and life. As a child in France, young Clouzut was born in 1907. He wrote plays and spent hours reading in his father’s bookstore.
Clouzot began writing plays and adapting foreign screenplays into German for UFA Studios in Berlin when he started work there. Together with other German expressionists such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, he found himself in Switzerland the following year after UFA sacked him in 1934. For nearly five years, Clouzot was bedridden with a debilitating case of tuberculosis. At the sanitarium, he reads books on the art of storytelling while also secretly observing the people around him.
By learning a lot about psychological weakness, physical suffering, death, and people, all thematic elements will have a place in Diabolique. Along with Clouzot’s other films in subsequent years, he became more concerned with human suffering than the politically or nationally-minded cinematic concerns of the time. In the film, murder is perfect, and so many cinematic assassinations have failed and tried to commit crimes flawlessly.
Endurance Under Tension
Watching them try usually proves to be a test of endurance under tension, as their schemes rarely go according to plan. While, more often than not, things go south, it’s thrilling to watch them scramble to stay together. Clouzot from 1955 is haunted by it in Diabolique. The killers carry out their plan as they planned. Having gotten away with it, the horrific story isn’t finished with them.
Nothing about the film proves to be so simple, and the audience never really sticks to the plan. The clever story has many secrets that are not revealed until surprising twists in the climax, despite the plotting and on-screen planning by the film’s assassins. Clouzot immersed his audience in an unsettling world from the start, instilling fears of being ghostly and unnatural. With a seemingly perfect murder at the center of the film, Psycho‘s influence endured long after Alfred Hitchcock released the film.
It becomes clear when Hitchcock loves Diabolique and sees the loss of Clouzot’s rights as a huge opportunity we missed. He screened the film many times, both personally and for screenwriter Alex Coppel, before filming Vertigo. What’s more, the film has continued to influence Hollywood directors over the years.
Murder of Michel
When the New York Times interviewed Hitchcock about Psycho in 1959, the master of suspense described it as a story in the Diabolique genre. However, the film has a lot more in common with Vertigo. Both films are set in a poetic, abstract cinematic world and have a sharp French sensibility to them. When Clouzot was finally well enough to return to France, he found a different landscape than the German population had left behind during WWII.
Following Le Corbeau, most of his films with collaborations were banned, and he was barred from ever again setting foot on a film set. Once proven correct, Clouzot went on to direct a successful whodunit and intrigue story. He gained international acclaim after directing The Wages of Fear, about disadvantaged workers asked to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across bumpy terrain.
In Diabolique, it is shown that Nicole and Christina had planned and discussed Michel’s murder. Although very reluctant at first, Nicole soon convinced Christina to carry out their plan. It involves Christina staying at Nicole’s house for the holidays. From there, she calls Michel to say she will leave him. When Michel arrived, she treated him to a drink that she had drugged. After that, Nicole and Christina drowned him in a full bath.
Impending Doom and Stagnation
They carried the corpse tea back to school on large woven rods and dumped the corpse tea into the frothy pool. The corpse will be kept until one of the children finds it. When the pool was finally drained, Michel’s body was nowhere to be found. Strange occurrences begin around the school. The suit that Michel was wearing was returned from the dry cleaners. A youngster by the name of Moinet says he saw Michel alive.
When she scolded him for breaking a window with a slingshot, Christina nearly fainted from her fragile heart when she saw what appeared to be Michel standing in the background of the class portrait. Convinced that Michel’s ghost is haunting her, a trembling Christina investigates the shadows one night. She followed them down a long, seemingly endless hallway to Michel’s office, where, on a typewriter, a piece of paper had the words “Michel Delassalle” repeated over and over.
The opening shot of the dilapidated school pool shows all the ugly realities of human potential in the dirty black water, offering an apt metaphor for the film’s immoral character—impending doom and stagnation. Later on, the pond became a source of terror and murder.
The compulsive approach of Diabolique has control over every detail, which results in technical precision. However, it also limits the freedom of their actors. Both Hitchcock and Clouzot committed atrocities against their actors. However, Hitchcock famously described them as “cattle” to move. As such, Hitchcock maintained positive relationships with many actors. On the other hand, Clouzot maintains a dictatorial reputation both inside and out.
Clouzut is fixated on details and enjoys the pain of achieving them. In a sense, art is a painful process. In the film, Michel removes a contact lens from his eye. He smiled triumphantly, in one of the most shocking moments in all of cinema. Despite the film ending with a private detective arresting Christina and Michel after he overheard their confessions, Diabolique offers a chilling conclusion.
When the school closes with the principal arrested and the principal dead, Moinet finds himself caught breaking windows once again. Oddly enough, he was using a previously confiscated catapult. One of the teachers questions him about the return of his catapult, explaining that previous ghost claims have been proven false and that no one can claim Moinet in the end. Clouzot warns the audience with the final frame, saying don’t be a demon, don’t spoil our friends’ interest in the film, and don’t tell them what we saw.
A Bomb about to Explode
Later, Hitchcock used a similar message before screenings of Psycho. The gimmick further fanned the interest of moviegoers. To be sure, Hitchcock and Clouzot share more than just a fascination with the source material. They storyboarded their film by detailing every camera movement in every shot before the cameras started rolling. Clouzot once explained his motivations for Diabolique by saying that he was only trying to comfort himself and the little boy who was sleeping with all his heart.
The question says the director’s alter ego character is a soul that remains and is drawn to suffering because that’s what he knows. Working under a Nazi film executive and surviving WWII only to be barred from making films became an unmistakable sentiment. Clouzot’s art is indeed greater than most, with art as unforgiving as the narrative. While he offered a story that would later be made into a mystery thriller and paranormal mystery film, Clouzot set the standard.
Without letting the listener benefit from occasional reprieves, the entire Diabolique experience feels like a bomb about to explode.
- Gonzales, P. B. (2011). Les Diaboliques. Senses of Cinema.
- Lloyd, C. (2013). Henri-Georges Clouzot. In Henri-Georges Clouzot. Manchester University Press.
- Sragow, M. (2019). Waiting in the Wings. Film Comment, 55(1), 74-74.