Les Diaboliques opens with a quote by French novelist Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, “A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and gives the horror of the things it depicts.” Les Diaboliques is certainly a moral film.
In Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 classic thriller, the owner of an elementary school plots her husband’s death with his mistress, who is also a schoolteacher. The film’s slow-burning plot makes the movie great to watch the first time, so I won’t reveal any more than this. In fact, Les Diaboliques concludes with a message to viewers, urging you to not “be a devil” and spoil the movie for your friends. The film’s plot is absolutely fitting for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and legend has it that Clouzot purchased the rights to the film mere hours before Hitchcock could. The film was deeply influenced by Hitchcock’s earlier work, but also would influence Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho.
Les Diaboliques is concise and doesn’t waste a second of screen time. The movie expertly blends horror and suspense, while still maintaining an elegance that is quintessentially French, in no doubt due to the steady performances of its two leads. Clouzot’s wife in real life, Véra Clouzot, is soft and bewildered as the school owner Christina Delassalle, and Simone Signoret is smooth and seductive as the mistress Nicole Horner. The curious and largely overlooked Charles Vanel also plays an almost comical role as a detective.
I was twelve the first time I saw Les Diaboliques and the film stuck with me. This is primarily because it hints at unseen horrors. What torments the film’s characters is some unknown evil that exists outside the frame but is always present. The film’s impeccable lighting packs each shadow with meaning. It represents the duality in each of the characters; shots where Christina or Simone’s faces are partially obscured by shadows remind the audience that even seemingly innocent schoolteachers can plot a murder. However, in its final moments, the gradient of black, grey, and white that overwhelms the screen is cinematically stunning and plays up the sheer suspense of the plot. Les Diaboliques is the rare black-and-white film with the illusion of its own color palette.
In the end, the film delivers on its promised thrills and leaves you contemplating humanity’s darker aspects. The intricacies of its plot mirror the film’s moral focus on the complexities of deception and betrayal. The characters’ flaws bleed into each other and propel their respective downfalls. No matter the offense, no one leaves unscathed; whether they be guilty of selfishness, greed, adultery, or murder, every character receives justice.
Les Diaboliques assures you that what you see is never what you get. Throughout the movie, you learn with the characters, asking the same questions they ask. Les Diaboliques is essential for any horror fan as the movie that paved the way for your favorite horror movie. Regardless of whether or not you like the horror genre, psychological thrillers, revenge flicks, or even detective movies, Les Diaboliques will entertain and keep you guessing until the very end.