In the first shot of Les Diaboliques, a rattletrap truck putt-putts its way through wet streets. As it enters the shabby grounds of L’Institution Delassalle, the truck runs through a deep mud puddle, crushing a small paper boat left drifting there. In that moment, master director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear) presents the two themes at the film’s core: that we should watch the waters, and that we will see the fragile and the frivolous crushed underfoot.
M. Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), the headmaster of this rundown boarding school, treats his students and staff with equal (and crushing) disdain, but he saves his true sadism for his women. His brassy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) first appears wearing sunglasses to hide a bruised eye. After his delicate wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) cannot force herself to choke down the spoiled fish served in the dining hall (as “an example” for the students), we hear her pained squeals as Delassalle administers her punishment.
The early minutes of the film show us that Delassalle is loathed by all, from the tippling teacher he humiliates at the dinner table to the dawdling student he confines to school for the weekend vacation, so when the two women who’ve suffered at his hands for years team up and hatch a scheme to rid themselves of the brute, it’s no surprise. But trust me: Les Diaboliques does have plenty of surprises for its audience.
At its release in 1955, the film caused a sensation, and it remains a spine-chilling classic of suspense cinema. Les Diaboliques‘ pervasive influence on generations of thrillers to follow may make its twists and turns feel familiar, but it is just as haunting on the 20th viewing as on the first; the film stands as a masterpiece of mood and tension.
The pervasive corruption of the story is evident in every aspect: the muddied splash of the truck, the untended and grassless school grounds, the stagnant swimming pool, the spoiled fish, the slightly grubby hotel room to which our heroines repair, the broken-down laundry basket upon which an early suspense scene turns. The dirty waters of the first scene hint at the insinuating, encroaching quality of creeping evil. Water seeps into the film at every turn: stale in the streets, spitting from the sky, banging through pipes, trickling down drains, and spilling every which way.
Even the sweetly timorous Christina, whose long shiny plaits, gingham dress, and winsome half-smile make her look like a barely-grown Dorothy Gale still in a daze from her trip to Oz — even she is blemished; her weak heart is a metaphor for her moral weakness. If Christina can sink to the depths she does, the film seems to ask, who in this world can stand against moral corruption?