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Film / Les Diaboliques

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Les Diaboliques ("The Devils"), also known as Diabolique, is a French suspense-thriller made in 1955 and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapted from the 1952 novel Celle qui n'était plus ("She who was no more") by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

The story is set at a run-down boys' boarding school on the outskirts of Paris. Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret), who are respectively wife and mistress of the school's jerkass head master, Michel (Paul Meurisse), conspire to murder him. Shortly after they carry out the deed, however, his body disappears. And then things just get weirder from there.

Rumpled, folksy detective Fichet, played by Charles Vanel, was the inspiration for Columbo.

Remade in the U.S. twice, first as the 1974 Made-for-TV Movie Reflections of Murder (starring Joan Hackett as the wife, Tuesday Weld as the mistress, and Sam Waterston as the brutish husband) and then again as the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique (starring Isabelle Adjani as the wife, Sharon Stone as the mistress, Chazz Palminteri as the husband, and Kathy Bates in a gender-flipped role as the detective).

Alfred Hitchcock was impressed enough to acquire the rights to another Boileau/Narcejac novel and turn it into Vertigo, and he later cited Les Diaboliques as a big influence on Psycho. Deathtrap was also a Spiritual Successor.

There's also a quasi-remake from Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studios, titled HEX.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Asshole Victim: Michel, with so much emphasis on "asshole" that the "victim" part almost fades in comparison. Subverted eventually, as the ending reveals that he has been alive and working together with Nicole the whole time. Double subverted when Alfred Fichet catches them both and arrests them.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: L'institution Delassalle might not be quite as extreme as some other examples, but it's still a run-down dump overseen by the sadistic headmaster Michel.
  • Ceiling Banger: Nicole's upstairs tenant, attempting to listen to a radio quiz show, is aggravated by her noisily filling her bathtub at 10 p.m.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Michel is referred to as a former champion swimmer, which allowed him to hold his breath long enough to make the drowning seem real.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Nicole gives a lame excuse for a black eye that was apparently caused by Michel.
  • Dead Man's Chest: Nicole and Christina stuff Michel's body into a wicker chest. It does not shut properly and they are afraid the neighbour might see the body when they load it into their van.
  • Death by Adaptation: The film tweaks the initial murder plot of the novel, but Nicole and Michel actually succeed in killing Christina.
  • Disposing of a Body: Or appearing to, anyway.
  • Domestic Abuse: Michel is physically and emotionally abusive toward both Christina and Nicole.
  • Do Not Spoil This Ending: Translated from French, the final title card after the film reads:
    Don't be diabolic yourselves! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw. On their behalf, we thank you.
  • Empty Piles of Clothing: The women freak out when the suit Michel was drowned in is returned to the school from a dry cleaners.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The whole movie is a plot by Michel and Nicole to kill Christina. She has a weak heart, which they use to frighten her to death.
  • Epigraph: The films opens with a quote by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly.
  • Fainting: Christina, after the swimming pool where Michel's body was dumped is drained empty... and the body is gone.
  • Faking the Dead: Michel wasn't dead at all. It was all a ruse to fool Christina, and literally frighten her to death.
  • The Film of the Book: The film is based on She Who Was No More (Celle qui n'était plus), a 1952 novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
  • Foreshadowing: Early scenes establish that 1) Christina has a lot of money of her own, and 2) she has a heart condition.
  • Fright Death Trap: Christina, driven wild by fright, has her fatal heart attack after Michel rises from the tub.
  • Gaslighting: Nicole and Michel are plotting to drive Christina mad with fear.
  • Gender Flip: Kathy Bates as the Fichet-Expy in the 1996 remake.
  • Gratuitous Latin: During the dinner, a teacher, M. Drain, says bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis ("good wine gladdens a person's heart").
  • Hate Sink: Michel; it's telling how big an asshat he was when the woman who murdered him gets more sympathy, and then in the end Nicole joins him, with the reveal that she was in on the plot to terrify Christina into having a heart attack with the very much alive Michel all along.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: Averted. Christina's fatal heart attack at the end is disturbingly realistic.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: The film implies that Christina and Nicole are lovers one scene shows them in the same room in pajamas, and later they talk of running away together. This is never expressly portrayed or stated, however; there were some things you just couldn't do in 1955, even in France.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: It's implied that Christina and the Detective may have deliberately set up Christina's apparent death, given a kid claims to see her after the Detective just so happens to be in the right place at the right time to overhear their post-murder gloating...
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: One of the teachers, M. Raymond, comes across as this.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Les Diaboliques is the title of a collection of short stories by Barbey d'Aurevilly. Moreover, the film opens with a quote from the preface of this book.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the last scene, a kid claims to have talked with Christina, who died from a heart attack earlier. The boy is noted to be a notorious liar, but he was right when he said that he saw Michel earlier in the movie. So is he lying this time, or has he really encountered her ghost? Or did Christina survive her attack, just like Michel faked his death?
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Nicole tells Christina about a dead body found in the Seine, so Christina goes to the morgue and meets Fichet. The fact that Fichet starts investigating this case ruins Nicole and Michel's plan in the end.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The tension when Christina is wandering through the deserted halls of the school at night, looking for Michel, is incredible.
  • Not Quite Dead: Possibly. The film hints that the wife might have survived her heart attack. (Or that the kid saw her ghost. Or that the kid is a liar.)
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Fichet, the detective, employs a bit of this. (More than one observer has noted the character's similarity to Columbo.)
  • The Perfect Crime:
    • Subverted with Nicole's plan to kill Michel. It seems to be a perfect plan to murder him and to get off scot-free. It is a actually part of a perfect plan to kill Christina.
    • Played seemingly straight but subverted, this time for real, with Michel and Nicole's plan to kill Christina.
  • Police Are Useless: It's good that Fichet heard Michel and Nicole discussing their plot, but it would have been better if he'd stepped up before Christina keeled over and died.
  • Private Detective: Fichet, the retired police inspector turned private sleuth.
  • Protagonist Title: Subverted. The title seems to refer to Christina and Nicole, the protagonists and the murderers of Michel. It actually refers to Nicole and Michel.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The film implies that Michel rapes Christina after the dinner with the fish.
  • The Reveal: Michel was alive all along. Nicole is his accomplice.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: The film shows us who the murders are and how they did it. The rest of the film is just if and how Fichet solves the murder. There's a reason this film inspired Columbo.
  • Screaming Woman: Christina, when the lights go out just after she finds Michel's name written over and over on the typewriter during the climax.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Michel is given sedative-laced whiskey to drink so he can be carried to the bathtub and drowned.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Michel. His novel counterpart, Farnand, is Driven to Suicide when the plot falls apart.
  • Spooky Photographs: Michel's ghostly face hovers in the background of a class portrait.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Michel being an Asshole Victim, his murderers, Nicole and Christina get a positive point of view.
  • Those Two Guys: M. Raymond and M. Drain, the teachers, give comments about what happens, but they have no impact on the plot.
  • Twist Ending: Michel and Nicole have been in cahoots all along.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The audience is not informed about the details of Nicole's plan to murder Michel. It works as planned.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Michel slaps Christina after she spills alcohol on his suit it's drugged, and she was trying to stop him from drinking it. She then goes ahead and lets him drink.

Alternative Title(s): Diabolique