Friday, August 22, 2008

From the Queue: Diabolique (1954)

Diabolique is about two woman who, together, plot the murder of a terrible man. He is husband to one, mistress to the other, and such a pouty, abusive lout that his death is welcome to both women, whatever personal rivalries they may feel. All three work at the same boys boarding school. The wife is wealthy and owns the place, the husband runs it as a principal, and the mistress teaches. The troubled relationship between the three is known to all the teachers, staff, and students of the school, and these side characters walk around, shaking their heads at the drama that unfolds before them on a daily basis. The wife is an ex-nun with a heart condition, and she's opposed to both divorce and murder for religious reasons. But, after suffering at the husband's hands for so long, her anger inspires her to break the latter taboo. Yet, it is the mistress who, tired of the abuse, plots the murder and asks the wife for help. They drown the man in a bathtub, and soon after the wife begins to crack under the strain of her guilt. When things begin to get mysterious (the body disappears, the suit the man was killed in is sent to the cleaners), the poor woman's heart begins to deteriorate. The mistress, bound to the wife through their mutual crime, must watch over her, protect both of them from the other woman's conscience.

It isn't long before the two women are turning to familiar gender roles to get through the strain--the wife is frail and emotional, while the mistress is competent and taciturn. Watching this relationship develop in this way, to see these two form a fractured, diseased "marriage" consummated by murder is fascinating. Saying this movie is about lesbians is a stretch; these characters are in bed with one another due to a man's absence. Sexual desire has nothing to do with it. There is, nevertheless, a dollop of subtext in there that compels--particularly as the mistress is quite butch--and I couldn't help but wonder if this movie was the only way to discuss lesbianism in 1955, to speak of it in terms of aberration and violence. Then, thinking of how lesbianism is usually portrayed in today's films, I wondered if that's still the case.

As a suspense thriller, it's great fun. All of the murder and scheming is fine and well-done. The twisty plot seems obvious in the light of decades of soap operas and cop shows, but the characters and writing are always sharp. Information is doled out in just the right amounts and at the appropriate times. Just as the two women begin to need each other on a deeper level, we get deeper information about them and their histories. But really, this whole movie pretty much serves as a setup to deliver the final sequence in which the wife is terrified by the shadows and ghosts of her guilty conscience. She moves down the halls of the school as doors creak open by themselves and the lights go out mysteriously. Someone or something has typed the name of her victim on a typewriter, and the gloves of the murdered man lie nearby. Terrified, she flees to the bathroom and lying in the tub is a vision of terrifying simplicity. This is perfect funhouse filmmaking, chock full of spooky shadows and suggestive sounds timed perfectly to the viewer's increasing heart rate. It's especially neat, because the heroine is in such a vulnerable state that stress alone can kill her. Since she's the character with whom the viewer empathizes, and since the movie's wound the viewer up so well, you're doubly concerned for her... if her heart is racing like mine... she can't live much longer! Few movies of this period still retain their power to grab me, but this is killer stuff. It got me good.

The director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was apparently called the French Hitchcock at some point (Hitchcock reportedly wanted to make this movie himself) , and the way he juggles suspense with grim, gallows humor in this film is certainly evidence of this. The film ends on a half-joke, half-scare when a child intimates that the film's business is not quite finished and is punished for his insolence. But, despite the deftness of crafty filmmaking and the cynical humor, Clouzot is less interested in maintaining the status quo than Hitch. The mistress character alone draws a sharp contrast between the two directors. She's got a very French kind of cool about her, constantly wearing sunglasses, smoking, and brazenly speaking her mind. Hitchcock may have dreamt of this woman, but if he had, he wouldn't have allowed such a fiery-willed lady to exist film without wanting to punish her for it (he does this to both Annie and Melanie in The Birds. Time to find a nice man and settle down, ladies!). In Diabolique, it's the aberrant that survives, the outcast who overcomes (though, of course they do not ultimately "win," their fate feels nothing like punishment). This is refreshing, even in the context of modern cinema. In fact, with its cinematic flair, and love of quirky women, Diabolique points the way directly to Pedro Almodovar more than it sides with Hitchcock, and I believe that's a victory for everyone.

4 comments:

aliens said...

nice photo

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Rajesh said...

Nice post on Diabolique.
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Anonymous said...

The plot is really very cheesy and this movie appearing to be a great black and white movie that will thoroughly entertain. Your review made me so excited and curious for this movie that I eagerly wanted to watch it. Thanks for sharing.
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courtney said...

The detective in the movie could have been the inspiration for the Columbo TV series.