Directed in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Les Diaboliques or, as it's presented here, Diabolique, was based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac which Clouzot famously got the rights to before Alfred Hitchcock. The film tells the story of a woman named Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) who is married to the principal of a boys school named Michel (Paul Meurisse). Christina's family are the ones who control the school, but she's given control to him and he cuts corners and does everything he can to save money. Michel is a scoundrel, not only does he treat Christina, who suffers from a weak heart, very poorly but he's been fooling around on her with another school employee, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), who he's recently slapped around judging by the mark on her face.
Soon after we're introduced to the three core characters, we learn that Christina and Nicole are fed up and plan to get rid of Michel once and for all. While they're the unlikeliest of partners, the one thing they do have in common is mistreatment at the hands of the same man, and so when everyone gets a weekend's worth of vacation they wind up luring him to Nicole's house in the city and knock him out by putting a heavy sedative in a tainted bottle of Johnny Walker. They then proceed to drown him and bring the body back to the school where they'll dump it in the stagnant swimming pool to make it look like an accident. The plan goes off without a hitch, until the pool is drained and the body isn't there...
We'll leave the plot synopsis at that (after all, the film does end with a text card requesting we not spoil the film for those who haven't seen it) but let it suffice to say that the film will keep you guessing. Even if you figure out the twist before the final reveal, there are still going to be plenty of surprises throughout the film to keep you guessing. On top of that, Clouzot adds enough depth and subtext to the picture that you can read into it a few interesting ideas - are Christina and Nicole having an affair of their own? Is there some sort of spiritual twist that affects Christina the way it does at the end of the film? Is the film really trying to make some sort of feminist statement and should we be siding with Christina as she is, after all, conspiring to murder? There's plenty of food for through here and the movie keeps you thinking long after the finish.
Performance wise, all involved turn in great work. Véra Clouzot is excellent as the most sympathetic character in the film. Clouzot is wise to let us see her mistreated at her husband's hands before unveiling her plot so that we see her more as a victim than anything else. She contrasts in interesting ways with icy cold Simone Signoret who is all business and seemingly up to no good throughout the film. We don't sympathize as much with her, but we don't need to. Paul Meurisse plays the bastard Michel perfectly, presenting his character as selfish and manipulative, exemplified in the scene where he comes to meet Nicole in the city and tries to talk her out of the divorce she says she wants. He knows he'll be able to do it, but obviously cares not about his wife but rather her money. Even in what should be a tender moment of reconciliation between husband and wife he can't hide his greed. Throw in a great supporting role from Charles Vernal as a retired police detective determined to solve the case (an obvious inspiration for Falk's Columbo?) and Michel Serrault as the temperamental groundskeeper at the school and you wind up with a very strong cast all around.
Just as important as the tension in the script and the excellent performances, however, is the camerawork. Here the film uses shadow beautifully, and certain shots in the film you won't soon forget. The murder scene in particular has a gruesome quality to it despite the lack of any gore or bloodshed, while the last twenty minutes where it all comes crashing in on our cast is shot with such impending darkness that you can't help but find yourself on the edge of your seat. Everything from a shadow against a curtain to the hint of a naked breast under a nightgown all hints at sexualized violence and perfect deceit. Dark, twisted and endlessly engaging, Diabolique is as fascinating as it is tense and it stands the test of time as a true masterpiece of suspense.
Diabolique looks very good in this AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer presented in the film's original fullframe aspect ratio taken from the movie's original negative. The black and white picture shows good contrast and strong black levels throughout. Detail is generally very strong and only minor print damage is present in the form of the odd spec and scratch here and there. Some scenes look a bit softer than others but the film has always had that look to it. Thankfully there are no issues with any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement and the image is free of any compression artifacts of note. All in all, Criterion have done a very nice job here and the movie looks great considering its age.
The only audio option on the disc is a French language LPCM 1.0 Mono track that comes with optional subtitles in English. While the range is obviously a bit limited by the source material, things sound very good here. Dialogue is clean and clear and well mixed with the score (which is only present during the opening and closing credits sequences - there's no music in the movie itself) and there are no problems with any obvious hiss or distortion. The audio here is surprisingly clean and crisp, while the subtitles are always easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
The best of the supplements on this disc is the commentary that is available over selected scenes with Kelley Conway, author of Chanteuse In The City: The Realist Singer In 1930s French Film, which lends some interesting critical insight and analysis to the film. Here Conway provides some welcome background information on the cast and crew involved in the production but also explores the themes that run through this film and which tend to find their way into other Clouzot pictures. Conway talks over three scenes from the film which you can watch individually or through a play all option.
Criterion have also included two video features, the first of which is an optional fifteen minute introduction to the movie from director Serge Bromberg who offers some interesting comments on the film and its influence on cinema and which also offers up some welcome biographical information about Clouzot. The second is an interview with British horror film expert Kim Newman, the author of Nightmare Movies, who speaks for about fifteen minutes or so on the influences evident in Diabolique and about the influence that Diabolique had on the horror movies that would follow in its wake.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original trailer, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition. Also included inside the keepcase is an eighteen page full color booklet which contains credits for the film, credits for the Blu-ray, and an essay on Clouzot by author Terrance Rafferty alongside some nice stills and promotional art pieces.
A masterpiece of suspense and tension and undeniably one of the most important thrillers ever made, Clouzot's Diabolique should be considered essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the genre. It's an incredibly well made film that still has the power to creep us out over a half century after it shocked audiences in theaters and Criterion have done a very nice job with their Blu-ray presentation. A few more extras might have been a nice touch but the audio and video quality are both excellent and present the film in the best possible condition. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.