Friday, June 10, 2011

Trapped in Amber: Henri Clouzot's Diabolique

The movies we love (and sometimes hate) don't change. They are static things forever locked on film (or digital imagery). What changes is us. As we grow and mature our tastes evolve. But the movies? They are like the bug trapped in amber. They exist unchangeable. When I was seven, my parents threw a birthday party for me and my friends. After a lunch and some games, we were treated to a matinee in our local cinema to the relatively new movie for our small Ontario town. I loved the 2 ½ hour movie we watched. But don't think I thought it was the 'best film I'd ever seen,' but I sure enjoyed it. 

The movie? Doctor Dolittle, a movie considered terrible on almost every level (even at the time). And, yes, it is. About 13 years ago, I tried re-watching it with my young niece and nephew; I couldn't make it through an hour. And yet, this loved-it-yesterday-but-not-today experience is not confined to films considered bad. In the 1970s, I finally saw on television a 1955 French thriller by Henri Clouzot called Diabolique. I adored the twists and turns this film took. A month ago, the DVD company Criterion released a pristine version of the film as part of their exemplary collection. I had not seen the film since that night in the 1970s, so I jumped at the chance to see it again. Imagine my surprise when I ended up finding it dull, emotionally icy, dated and on some levels reprehensible. However, to this day, the picture is considered a masterpiece of thriller film-making. It influenced not only Alfred Hitchcock (his film Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of the book that was the source for Diabolique), but also, in the current era, Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects and mu
ch of the work of M. Night Shyamalan (god, help us), amongst others. Diabolique's plot is pretty simple.

Simone Signoret & Véra Clouzot
A dilapidated private boys' school is run by a dour, vicious, penny-pinching creep named Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse). With him at the school is his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot – whose money he used to start the school), and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Christina knows all about the affair since Delassalle does nothing to keep it a secret. Yet, because he's such a monster, the two women form a bond and conspire to get rid of him in a way that will make it look like an accident. Complications arise. I'll say no more for fear of spoiling the film's surprises. I must say that one thing that puzzled me about the film's conceit, even back at in the 1970s, was why in God's name Delassalle would hook up with Nicole (a woman best described as 'handsome') at the expense of Christina (a beautiful Brazilian). Okay, this might be the old Ginger-and-Mary-Ann Gilligan's Island thing. But I've always preferred raven-haired women to blondes (Signoret was blonde), so I'll admit my bias.

Anyway, why I found the film so dull in 2011 is that because, as with so many thrillers, one of the biggest problems they all face is that once you know its thrills, the movie doesn't have much left to hold you unless the filmmaker finds ways to keep you entranced. With The Sixth Sense, for example, once you knew its surprise, there really was no reason to see it again (though many did), because even though it was well-acted it was often painfully slow-moving. Diabolique is almost 2 hours long and it feels it. Frankly, this material only needed about 90 minutes to tell its tale.

Henri Clouzot
In thinking about the other films of Henri Clouzot that I've seen (The Wages of Fear, a thriller about three men who, for a lot of money, agree to drive a truck full of nitroglycerin through a jungle to a wildcat fire at an oil well; and The Mystery of Picasso, a kind of documentary about Picasso where he silently goes about creating a series of canvases – it's better than it sounds), I finally realized Clouzot was a misanthrope similar in temperament to Stanley Kubrick (though, I still like much of Kubrick's work – but I'll save that for another blog) and perhaps a misogynist. In Diabolique, he presents Christina as a nervous, physically fragile, childish woman (even her long, dark hair was done up in a strange double pony tail that seemed to be knotted on the end – something a kid would do). I came away this time with the feeling that Clouzot had nothing but contempt for her character. Reading the excellent essay in the Criterion DVD by critic Terrance Rafferty, and watching the good but short documentary about the film featuring Kim Newman, I learned that Véra Clouzot herself was a physically fragile woman with a heart condition, and yet Henri (her husband) insisted in shooting take after take after take of her and Signoret dragging a trunk containing a body around. For 'authenticity,'  Henri insisted that a real person (alive, thankfully) actually be in the trunk. But he has a woman with a real heart condition playing a weak woman with a heart condition and is then forced by her director and husband to do something that might be damaging to her health. Creepy.

The documentary also revealed another troubling fact about Clouzot. There was a scene in the film that illustrated Delassalle's cheapness when he purchased half-rotten fish to feed to the staff and students. Again, for authenticity, Henri supposedly used real, half-rotten fish. The only performer we see eat the fish, in close-up, is Véra. It was monstrous. It makes you think Henri identified a bit too much with Delassalle. Véra Clouzot died in 1960 from her heart condition. She was 47. You begin to wonder if his cruel treatment of her had anything to do with it.

Mystery of Picasso
Back in the 1970s, I reacted to the clever tricks of Clouzot's thriller; today all I can see is the ghoul behind the camera. Finally, it was really not surprising that he followed up Diabolique with a documentary featuring Pablo Picasso. Picasso was also a legendary misanthrope and misogynist. They were probably like two peas in a pod. The film they made together was a brilliant look at the creative process of an artist, but it had, like Diabolique, almost no heart, because at the end of the shoot, Picasso insisted that the works he made all be destroyed so they would only exist in Clouzot's film, trapped in amber.

Endnote: The Criterion Collection of Diabolique is an absolutely stunning remastering. The black and white photography shimmers. The DVD also includes, as I said, a fine essay career overview of Henri Clouzot by the respected critic, Terrance Rafferty. There's also the previously mentioned short documentary about Clouzot and the film featuring Kim Newman. On top of that, Criterion features an entertaining introductory video with Serge Bromberg, co-director of a documentary on Clouzot about his unfinished film, Inferno. It's a good doc too, but do NOT watch it before you watch the film as there's way too many spoilers in it for an 'introduction.' There's also a commentary track on selected sequences that I've not yet had a chance to listen to. 

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. On Sunday, June 12th, from 3:00 to 4:30 pm, David will be conducting a reading/signing of The Empire of Death in Unionville, Ontario at the TooGood Café – 142 Main Street, Unionville.

No comments:

Post a Comment