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Cardiac arrest
A UK region 0 DVD/Blu-ray review of LES DIABOLIQUES
movie review by Camus, technical specs and summary by Slarek
 
"Hitchcock was brazenly light-fingered with this film and Psycho borrows
its main elements – the dead seem to have risen from the grave and a
highlighted murder takes place in a bathroom. The films even share
identical close ups of swirling water going down the plughole."

 

To be fair to Hitchcock, the shots are by no means identical but Hitch's influences are hardly a secret, all contained in a truly thrilling movie brought to life by superbly unfussy direction, three tremendously convincing performances and a story to die for. A long time ago, an adult told a small boy a tale. I have never forgotten it (more's the pity). It was a story of such suspense, mystery and intrigue that even if the ending hadn't been one to stop a few hearts, it still would have stuck to me like traumatic tar. I made no connection that this verbally told tale was a scene by scene retelling of one of the greatest screen thrillers of all time but such was its power, I relented seeing the film stupidly of the opinion that once a movie's principal surprise is known it renders the film almost superfluous. Yes, OK, colour me dumb but that was many years ago.

When I finally saw it, I was struck by how artful it was, how restrained, how pure. This was grown up film-making and in Les Diaboliques, Hitchcock had found a competitor in director Henri-Georges Clouzot. The master's regard for this disturbing and fascinating picture is evident. It inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho (to out-Diabolique Les Diaboliques). There aren't simply similar scenes. The marketing is identical. While Clouzot put a reminder at the end of his movie for people not to tell their friends too much about the movie they'd just been floored by, Hitch put his "Don't tell!" pitch up front urging cinema owners to join in with the protection of the movie's secrets and not let anyone in after the start of the performance. The reason for this may seem odd today but back in the day, people often pitched up at the cinema at any time, watched the main feature from the middle to the end and then waited (sometimes through a supporting movie) and then watched it up to the point when they first joined it. Madness perhaps but everyone did it.

Rest assured; I'm not about to spoil your fun and reveal Les Diaboliques' ending but in 2011, we are so slathered with visual media, the mere fact that you know there's some sort of rug pull awaiting you means you're hyper sensitive to it. You wouldn't have been in 1955. My advice? Forget about it and place yourself in another master's hands, a director who rewrites the DNA of the slow burn and could teach a portly Londoner a thing or two about movie suspense. There seems to be one of Richard Dawkins' memes going about at the moment (part of the marketing of Steven Moffat's 2nd Doctor Who series). A meme, to the uninitiated, is an idea passed on to others that isn't genetic. It is the answer to the following question; "If you had a time machine..." Well, let's not be too frivolous but I would have loved to have been an audience member of the first cinema screenings of some classic films – to be able to appreciate the context in which these works appeared and not just be a distant observer from the future. Let's think. It's late in the year 1955. McDonalds is about to explode all over the US, James Dean has a fatal head on collision with a Ford coupe and becomes an instant cultural icon and a certain TV programme debuts on US TV... Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Late in that year, Les Diaboliques opens to a pretty rapturous critical and public reception. There's a very good reason for that.

It's France in the fifties. A domineering, violent, abrasive and frankly unpleasant headmaster Michel, played by Paul Meurisse, runs a small suburban school for boys. It's in a sorry financial state (the food served is well past its sell by date and just watching it being eaten reluctantly still turns my stomach). In his first appearance, Michel manages to squash a child's toy paper boat; what a fiend! Let's just say that it doesn't take long for audience sympathies to land squarely on his elfin, put-upon and striking wife, Christina, played by the director's own wife Vera Clouzot. At the heart of the drama is a female bond but definitely an unusual one. Christina's friend and fellow teacher is Nicole played by the statuesque Simone Signoret. She is also Christina's husband's battered mistress. An early exchange indicates this is a public and most unusual state of a literal affair but this curious bond is extremely strong and it needs to be. Despite her husband's monstrous behaviour, Christina can't get a divorce ("It's a mortal sin...", don't you just love Catholicism?) Little whispers in her ear speak softly of an opportunity to get rid of their problem in a rather dramatic and even more sinful way.

Nicole liberates a huge wicker basket from the school loft and sets off with Christina to contemplate a grisly deed. It's no spoiler to reveal that a bathroom becomes the setting for a premeditated murder and what a scene this is, the lever or fulcrum that changes the entire emotional landscape for the remaining hour and eight minutes. It's a tribute to the script and Meurisse's and Vera Clouzot's performances that Christina can go from not even contemplating divorce to partnering Nicole in a murder in the space of 30 movie minutes. It's the cruelty of Michel that pushes her to a place she really would not have gone voluntarily. Nicole is in charge but for those brief moments, Christina has gone 'blood simple' and there's not a dishonest note in any of these scenes. Credibility is tested – you are always asking "But how can she summon up the will to do it?" but the movie carries you through and your sympathies don't waver one jot. Masterful.

Credit where credit is definitely due. The original novel "Quelle Qui N'était Plus" was written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (curiously the originators of Hitchcock's greatest film, Vertigo); screenplay and dialogue is by the director and Jérôme Géronimi with 'collaboration' from René Masson and Frédéric Grendel. Once the deed is done, there is a super-suspenseful drive back to the school to dump the body in the swimming pool in an attempt to make it look like an accident. When the corpse fails to turn up the next morning, well... That's when the phrase 'turn of the screw' puts its hand up demanding the floor. And so begins the unravelling of what was, for its time, a truly shocking film with an assurance in direction that is predictably 'old school' but now in 2011, it has all the more power because of its amber-trapped quality. Let me qualify that with a smidgeon of backstory.

Clouzot was banned for life from making films after making Le Corbeau ('The Raven', a film that some judged besmirched the French national character and was regarded as Nazi propaganda). After support from artists and intellectuals the life ban was reduced to two years and thank the movie gods for that. He beat a certain Monsieur Hitchcock to the rights of the book Diabolique. Given this I think both directors would have made classic films from this material. Clouzot had no executive producer market testing 'the product'. He had no focus groups, no surveys or clipboard ticks to help him make his film. He came from a country with a very strong attitude towards and support for home-grown cinema and in terms of a timing of talent, he'd just directed Le Salaire De Le Peur (The Wages Of Fear), without doubt one of the greatest thrillers ever made in any language (and I came to that late too).

To say Cluozot was creatively on fire could be an understatement. He was many years away from being soundly and erroneously rubbished by the emerging French Nouvelle Vague (which vigorously promotes ironies a-plenty considering its 'auteur theory''s own near deification of a certain Monsieur 'Itchcock). I do think the culprits have since admitted that they made it all up just to get noticed. Well, it worked. The 'auteur theory' is still bandied about in film criticism. I'm with scribe William Goldman on this. Film is a collaborative craft and to say Alien is 'A Ridley Scott Film' short-changes the guy who designed the alien itself never mind all the other contributing talent. Scott would admit that without Hans Rudi Giger, Alien would not have been Alien... So how is that 'all' Scott's work? Yes, there are subtleties in the argument about a director's vision but hey... Credit where it's due.

Clouzot's direction is as calculated as the murder. There are subtle clues in his framing in terms of character revelation and he uses big close ups very sparingly (in fact there's only one – from the recollection of my short term memory – and it's a pretty important one). All the emotion and hanging air of threat is teased out with unfailing mid-shots. When we get the big close up, it smacks hard. The very few camera movements are never flashy or inefficient. Clouzot recognises that the most important thing about his movie is the story; so consequently he tells it simply and without blandishments. It is edited crisply with no fat on its bones. This is a thriller wholly dependent on the three performances and as I mentioned, all three are never less than top notch. The photography is stark and you're never too sure what's lurking in the shadows. The real surprise, craft-wise is that Clouzot employs no score in the movie. There's a dense, orchestral funeral dirge that opens the film (complete with boy's choir and church organ) but once the credits are over, that's it. There's not one musical note in the rest of the picture. Once the end credits come up, there's a quote from the main theme but that's your lot. It's most unusual for a thriller (and such a revered one) not to rely on the power of what a great score can bring. Would The Omen still be The Omen without Jerry Goldsmith's stunning (and Oscar winning) 'Ave Santini' main theme and subsequent score? Clouzot obviously had great confidence in his story, c'est vrai. He didn't need musical help and in typing that, I feel you have to concede that Bernard Herrmann's screeching strings ripping Janet Leigh apart in Psycho contributed more to the shock and violence of that scene than any other element (let's suggest the editing may pip it at the post). So music or no music? Great film-making craftspeople decide.

One final thought and it's terribly difficult to write about so I will use an analogy. Let's think of a movie we all know the 'twist' ending to. How about The Sting? Too old? What about Men In Black? It's not so much a twist ending but it is unusual – that the earth and its universe are just the inside of an extra-terrestrial marble (and there are many marbles). Well, let's say we all go "Whoah!" at that but imagine that the last shot and last pieces of dialogue hint (and have been signposted earlier) that the alien's own universe – though we never see it – is contained inside a little human boy's piece of Lego... Les Diaboliques is justly famous for its remarkable ending but I'll go further and say that there is more to that ending – if you pay attention... If you come to Les Diaboliques a Clouzot virgin, pop in the disc, grab a bottle of something to steady your nerves when the scenes demand it, close the curtains and settle in with a nervous friend for an evening you will talk about for a long, long time. If you're a fan who just wants to get closer to the big screen, higher definition experience, then I'll leave it to Slarek to pronounce this edition worthy of its own reputation. Whatever technical conclusions are drawn, this film is a classic for a damn fine reason.

sound and vision

Following on from De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, Les Diaboliques is the second title from Arrow's new Arrow Academy label, an admirable project to release world cinema classics in dual format editions containing both Blu-ray and DVD editions with (some) newly commissioned extras, including detailed booklets. In this respect they are following in the footsteps of both Masters of Cinema and the BFI, exalted company whose collective output can't help but create high expectations for the content here. On the evidence of this second release, Arrow have got little way to go before they can share a pedestal with their dual format brethren.

According to the jacket this is a brand new high definition transfer of the film from a new restoration of the original negative, but this is not always evident in the resulting image. Save for a few remaining examples of minor damage (scratches on individual shots, that sort of thing), the picture is certainly clean and at its best displays a very good level of detail and stable contrast, but it's far from consistent, with crisply rendered shots surrounded on both sides by others with softer detail, more pronounced grain and a muddier tonal range. Even on the Blu-ray the picture never pops in the manner of recent Masters of Cinema releases – the picture feels flatter and gloomier than any of MoC's Antonioni releases, and detail that you would normally expect to be crisp is often surprisingly indistinct (the lettering on the poisoned whiskey bottle when isolated on the table is a good example). Comparing the two discs side-by-side, there is definitely more detail on the Blu-ray picture, but even at its best it looks like a solid standard definition transfer rather than what we've come to expect from an HD restoration. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming American Blu-ray release from Criterion compares.

Given its vintage, the LPCM mono 2.0 French soundtrack on both discs fares well, the inevitable restrictions in dynamic range (there is little in the way of bass here) balanced by the cleanliness of the track – there's no background hiss or audible damage – and the clarity of the dialogue.

extra features

Audio commentary by Susan Hayward, author of Les diaboliques (Cine-file French Film Guides)
Ah, expert commentaries. This is the same one that appeared on Arrow's 2007 DVD release, and before I start griping I should state that Hayward certainly knows her Clouzot and has clearly spent a good deal of time studying this film, and I would imagine that her written work on it is an interesting read. But as a verbal communicator she's somewhat less enthralling, her dry delivery and complete lack of emotion making what is billed as a discussion sound like a university professor not used to doing commentaries reading out a pre-prepared academic essay in the clearest possible voice, which is essentially what it is, of course. What she has to tell us is usually worthwhile, if sometimes a little over-analytical (I couldn't help wondering how Clouzot himself would have reacted to such in-depth deconstruction of even the smallest elements), but it's hard to stay focussed, particularly given the frequent and sometimes lengthy dead spots. Just ten minutes in I found myself yearning for the sort of liveliness, passion and information overload of David Kalat's superb commentary on MoC's recent DVD of Fritz Lang's The Indian Epic.

Ginette Vincendeau introduction (28:58)
Just a few seconds into this interesting but visually static piece, author, critic and French film scholar Vincendeau questions its status as an introduction by announcing that she is probably going to ignore Clouzot's own end-of-film request that viewers not reveal the plot details to others and do just that. Fortunately she keeps the spoilers to a minimum, though given the ground covered I'd still save this until after the film. In a single unchanging mid-shot broken up only by chapter titles, Vincendeau discusses Clouzot's career, the comparisons made between his work and Hitchcock's, adapting Boileau and Nercejac's novel, the cast and performances, its post-war context and the director's pessimism, social observation and command of film noir.

Original Trailer (2:32)
A seductively devised and wonderfully suggestive original French trailer, which warns potential viewers that, as with Hitchcock's Psycho, latecomers to the cinema will not be admitted.

Booklet
Here the release squares off rather well against its MoC equivalent, with an enjoyable essay on the film by author and critic Brad Stevens, a useful re-print of an interview with Clouzot by filmmaker and former critic Paul Schrader, stills from the film, rare original set drawings by Léon Barsacq, and advice on the correct aspect ratio that appears to be directly modelled on the Masters of Cinema booklets. Three posters of the film are also included, but are small enough to make me want to double-click on them for larger versions, which you'll fortunately find on the reversible disc cover.

summary

A wonderful film in a good but not outstanding package. Whether the transfer really can be bettered or was limited by the condition of the negative from which it was apparently sourced is hard to say, and the upcoming Criterion Blu-ray will likely prove a litmus test in this regard. The commentary is informative but too dryly delivered for this particularly viewer (I'm sure it'll work fine for others), and while the Ginette Vincendeau introduction is interesting, it would have been good to hear from a non-academic source such as one of the many filmmakers who have been influenced by Clouzot's work. If you don't already own a copy of the film and a balk at the current cost of a multi-region Blu-ray player, then for now at least, Arrow's dual format release is the best available version. Just.

Les diaboliques

France 1955
117 mins
director
Henri-Georges Cluzot
producer
Henri-Georges Cluzot
screenplay
Henri-Georges Cluzot
Jérôme Geronimi
René Masson
Frédéric Grendel
from the novel Celle qui n'était plus by
Pierre Boileau
Thomas Narcejac
cinematography
Armand Thirard
editor
Madeleine Gug
music
Georges Van Parys
art direction
Léon Barsacq
starring
Simone Signoret
Vera Clouzot
Paul Meurisse
Charles Vanel
Jean Brochard
Pierre Larquey
Michel Serrault
Thérèse Dorny
Noël Roquevert

disc details
region 0
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
LPCM mono 2.0
languages
German
English
subtitles
English
extras
Commentary
Introduction
Trailer
Booklet
distributor
Arrow Academy
release date
18 April 2011
review posted
2 May 2011