Criterion Cuts: Halloween Horror Harvest: “Diabolique”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

It’s October, so you know what that means: it’s time for some horror movies! If you’re like me, you actually probably watch a good number of horror movies throughout the year, especially in a year where two gems like The Innkeepers and Cabin in the Woods both came out in the spring. But I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, even if I don’t really find myself with the opportunity to write about them very often.

That changes in October. Criterion Cuts, already one of my more fluid projects, puts on a witch hat and douses itself in fake blood to take up all five October Mondays with an array of spooky, scary, or thrilling selections from the Criterion Collection. As you might expect, that’s going to be an eclectic set of movies, but that’s the joy of horror: the array of what is scary or unsettling is so vast that to delve into it will take you through all genres and the entire history of film, as even our earliest films endeavored to elicit that most primal emotion—fear.

Diabolique (1955)

Remember two weeks ago when I said that I didn’t like horror movies from the 1950s and went on to talk about how The Night of the Hunter had me reevaluating my stance? Well, today’s film just underlines how much that movie was the exception that proves the rule. Not that Diabolique, or Les Diaboliques as it’s known internationally, is a bad movie. It isn’t. But it’s reliant upon tropes so mined out culturally that almost all of its ‘scares’ are empty, its tension stretched into tedium, and its central conceit rendered impotent through overlong, underplayed moments of 2nd rate Hithcockian drama.

But let’s get to what it is, first. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on a script he managed to wrest away from Hitchcock, created this horror classic based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It concerns two women, Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret), who live at a ramshackle boarding school run by the tyrannical Michel (Paul Meurisse). Michel is married to the wealthy Christina, who is technically funding the school, but is mostly lining Michel’s pocketbooks as he cuts corners at every turn to create a miserable institutional environment. Her home life isn’t much better, as Michel spends his time either being emotionally abusive, intimating spousal rape, or sleeping with Nicole, who teaches at the school.

It’s a bad situation, and both Nicole and Christina seem fed up with it, finding a sort of sisterhood of women suffering under the thumb of the same overbearing man, mistress and wife becoming companions by circumstance but seemingly nearly becoming friends. And they decide, after too many meals of spoiled fish and too many cold nights, to come up with a plan. Or more specifically, Nicole comes up with the plan, and talks Christina into it. It’s very simple: travel far away, threaten to divorce him, wait until he arrives, and then kill him and get rid of him under the guise of him having an accident while on vacation.

So they lure him, drug him, and drown him in a tub. Which is all well and good, an elaborate but fairly elegant plan to get away with murder. The only problem is, it’s the best part of the movie, and then suddenly it careens into the absurd as they try to get rid of the body only to have a series of unfortunate events interrupting their transporting the body back to the school, where they intend to dump him in the murky pool to simulate an accidental drowning. Which works out, only for the pool to be empty when they finally do get around to draining it. Where’s the body? Nobody knows, and the anxiety begins to prey on Christina, especially when a boy at the school claims that he saw Michel long after he was already dead.

The second half of the film, then, descends into this paranoia as Christina struggles with her guilt and the increasing fear that Michel is either not dead by some magical means, or haunting them. But the film never really settles on playing up the horror element or the intrigue element, and so everyone just drifts in an uncertainty that while very, very French and very very period appropriate is also very very boring. I don’t want to be the guy who trashes a cinematic classic, and I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a bad movie, but there’s almost nothing in the second half that I held onto. I greatly enjoyed the strangely progressive feminist revenge themes of the first half, but they mostly go abandoned as the movie drifts past its murder and into a more conventional mode.

Hiding a body is hard. It’s also apparently a great setup for madcap adventures. See also: Weekend at Bernies, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, and The Telltale Heart.

And really, it’s because it ends up feeling like lesser Hitchcock. Apparently this movie influenced Psycho, which I can see, but as much as that might be the case the fact of the matter is when it comes to this sort of suspense Clouzot isn’t nearly as devoted to the forms and frictions of these plot elements as Hitchcock was. Where his movies race through tropes, Clouzot lingers in them, standing on points far too long until they become unbearable, without even the tension of the threat of scares to prolong them. Instead of feeling anxiety, all I mostly felt was sleepy, and annoyed that it was expected that I would respond to something so clearly telegraphed and conventional.

The thing is, I know that’s a problem with the era. This movie, like most classic horror, is so mined out that any original impact is gone as literally dozens of others have taken it and broken down the formula and created more contemporary versions. And the ending, which takes a sharp left turn as suddenly it turns out not only is Michel alive but he was assisted by Nicole into scaring Christina to death is perhaps the only last spark of creativity in an otherwise tired second half. The film even ends on a lame twist, as the boy who had tipped Christina off to Michel possibly being alive says he was given his slingshot by a now-dead Christina. Cue scary music! There’s even a title card asking you not to reveal that final twist, as if every horror movie now wasn’t predicated on a dumb reversal right in the last 5 seconds.

How I feel about the people who suggested I watch this movie.

Which, I suppose, is just one of the problems with watching too many movies. In established genres, things that are influential struggle to remain relevant to contemporary audiences who have seen everything that came after. And while I can logically understand that this movie did many of these things first or at least better than what had been done before, and with a high degree of skill, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the movie any more. For better or worse, film watching is as much an emotional exercise as it is an intellectual one. I can’t rationalize my way into liking a movie. If I’m bored, I’m bored. No amount of historical context, sadly, can change that. Especially since I had figured that all going in. Which makes this, sadly, the first real bust of this month. Let’s hope, really hope, it’s the only one.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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