Monday, December 20, 2010

Les Diaboliques

One of the classic "guy's night out" drinking toasts is "To our wives and girlfriends...may they never meet!"  There's a similar saying in France, although it translates roughly into "May my wife and girlfriend never become friends and plot my murder."  Ah, the language of love.

Les Diaboliques (which translates into "The Devils") follows Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot), a sweet but delicate teacher at a boy's boarding school.  Actually, Christina owns the school, as well as teaching in it; her husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse), is the principal/director.  I know how fun it is to work with your significant other (not at all; side note: I love you, honey!) and I know how rotten boys can be, so I think it's safe to say that this is not an ideal partnership.  Add that to the fact that Michel does not like children and has, in fact, run the school down into a second-rate status, and the situation becomes a bit clearer; Christina has the money and loves teaching, while Michel likes the money and can't stand the job.  But wait, get this: Michel has a mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school.  It's not a secret.  He rubs both of their faces in it and the entire school staff knows about it.  He is a braver man than me, but this was made about forty years before the Lorena Bobbitt event, so maybe he was ignorant of some of the possible ramifications of his actions.  Or maybe Michel is just a total douche.

Christina won't divorce because she is Catholic and Nicole can't leave because Michel is physically abusive (to both of them) and she doesn't have the money to move away from him.  Despite their respective relations to Michel, the two become friends, thanks to their mutual hatred of him.  Not satisfied with a terrible life, Nicole comes up with a foolproof plan to solve her and Christina's problem --- they need to kill Michel and make it look like an accident.  Eventually, after repeated bullying from Michel, Christina agrees to do it.  The excitement of the act is almost too much for her frail body, though, and she nearly faints on a couple of occasions.  After Michel is transformed into "the body formerly known as Michel," Christina and Nicole dump the body in the school swimming pool, where it will easily be found.  But it is not.  Days go by, and still no body.  The women come up with a pretext to drain the swimming pool, but the body is gone.  What happened to the body?  Who knows about their crime?  And why haven't they called the police?

It is interesting to note that this film begins with a plea to not spoil the ending for others.  It's an unusual thing to include in a film, but there is a reason for it; some movies are still great if you know the twist, others are ruined.  This film lies somewhere in-between, but it is definitely more effective if you don't know exactly what is going to happen.  The film is assembled competently enough by Henri-Georges Clouzot; when I think of French films, I tend to think of stylized cinematography, but this film's camera work is pretty standard.  Clouzot does a good job building the suspense, though.  As the main character in the film, Vera Clouzot was okay, but nothing special; yes, she conveyed anxiety and fear well enough, but it's not a particularly strong role and she doesn't add anything to make it interesting.  Simone Signoret, on the other hand, stands out as a ruthless, no-nonsense woman, doing whatever it takes to gain the freedom she desires.  Paul Meurisse succeeds in playing a thoroughly unlikable character; you rarely see a protagonist help murder somebody, but Meurisse was so dastardly that it seemed like the right thing to do.  And that's a hard trick to pull off, so kudos to the director for that.  The only other significant character in the film is Charles Vanel, who plays a retired police officer.  Vanel played his part well, but I hated the character, for reasons I'll mention later.

Les Diaboliques is often considered a horror movie, but I disagree.  Yes, it has some elements of horror movies, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, but it focuses on slow-building suspense instead of frequent scares, so I call this a suspense/thriller movie.  Now, the question becomes, "Is it a good suspense slash thriller?"  It's decent.  It's composed well and the pacing is good.  It's too bad the main character isn't the most charismatic one, but that's not a deal breaker.  The fact of the matter is that this movie was made fifty-five years ago and relied heavily on a shocking ending.  In the intervening years, there have been many films with more shocking, gruesome, and weird endings than Les Diaboliques.  The story is still pretty good, but it doesn't leave you in confused awe after the credits, like say 2001: A Space Odyssey ("what baby...?).  I also have a major problem with the falling action after the climax; the climax is pretty good, but what happens afterward is just wretched.  SPOILER ALERT: So, it turns out that Michel and Nicole faked his death and created this game of "who stole my corpse" to cause Christina to have a heart attack and die.  Michel gets the money, Nicole gets her man, and everybody's happy.  That's a pretty wicked-awesome ending, right?  But then the retired police officer walks out from the shadows and arrests them for murder.  He saw it all...and let it happen?  And what's he going to charge them with, scaring her to death?  Sure, I get that the bad guys aren't supposed to win (which would have been a much better ending), but that was the absolute worst way to make it happen.  The stupidity of that little scene knocked the whole film down a few notches for me.

This is definitely worth a viewing, even if it has lost a little of its luster over time.  And, if you don't like foreign films, this one has a pretty comprehensible story, with little or nothing lost in translation.  That one little bit at the end, though, just royally pisses me off.

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