Wouldn’t it be great if all movies had this tagline? Sadly this did not hold true for me as someone accidentally revealed a key part to the end, however by the time I finally watched this film (months later) I definitely did not see the end coming the way it did. That being said, don’t go running around telling everyone that Luke’s daddy issues are going to be resolved by the end of “Empire”.
Normally I’d say that subtitled films need a lot of draw to get me to watch them and for the most part, that’s almost always true. Even “Pan’s Labyrinth” took some urging from one of my college roommates before I decided to sit down and read the screen for two hours. You would think that after a movie as great as “Pan’s” that I maybe would’ve changed my mind, but not so much. So it wasn’t until my girlfriend Emily persuaded me to see “Diabolique” that I felt ok with watching it. Since I normally force her to watch movies I felt this was an interesting turn and that maybe she had a decent taste after all. That or I would just humor her and watch this crappy French movie from the 50’s. Having finished the movie I can gladly say that I may listen to her film recommendations more closely now, as “Diabolique” is an old thriller done right.
Movies have obviously changed since their inception a little over a century ago, though some would argue for the worse. Thrillers and horror films in particular have turned from actually scaring you and making you fear things like the ocean, or a bathtub to just throwing obscene amounts of blood and gore at you until you can’t keep down that overpriced popcorn anymore. So when we popped in the Criterion Collection edition of “Diabolique”, it was a welcome breath of (old) fresh air to the thriller genre. Set around the same time it came out (1955) it follows two women who work at a boarding school, run by none other than the tyrannical husband of one of our heroine’s. Within the first five minutes of the film we discover that the other woman is in fact the man’s mistress but this is not secret knowledge; both women are friends with each other and have a shared hatred for the man in their lives. As the backstory unfolds we learn that the wife (Christina) purchased the boarding school with the money she inherited from her family, but being 1950’s France is not allowed to run the school, only teach in it. Therefore her brutish husband Michel serves as the principle and rules with an iron fist. The two women are sick and tired of him beating them and treating them both terribly, so they decide to drive to the country and divorce him altogether. Of course once Michel catches wind of this plan he follows them to the country as well and tries to win his wife back by yelling at her and slapping her a few times. Ah, the ways to a woman’s heart. This doesn’t pan out as well as Michel had hoped, because the two ladies decide to retaliate and, you know, kill him.
What follows for the next hour and a half is Christina’s nervousness as they live their lives after the deed, but questions start to arise as well as strange occurrences that point to Michel communicating from beyond the grave. Obviously this is a problem and the film plays it out very well. I was caught completely off guard by the last few minutes of the film, but couldn’t be more pleased at how it turned out. Going back to the beginning of this post, in today’s movies it’s just so hard to not guess the ending of a film by the time you’re half-way through it (“Lincoln” anyone?) whereas “Diabolique” did a wonderful job making you guess up until the reveal. It was eventually remade in 1996 or 1997 with Sharon Stone, so make sure you don’t see that one by mistake. Also if you need anymore of a reason to see it, Hitchcock vied for the rights to make this movie and lost out to Henri-Georges Clouzot by six hours, so there’s that. A great thriller and a well-placed choice for the Criterion Collection, and the lead actress looks super eerily like a French Judy Garland. Creepy.
DIRECTOR’S CUT: Forget that it’s black and white and French (ew) and give it a shot. The only downfall for me was that there is no musical score, so it has a very raw feel but perhaps that plays into the suspense of the whole thing. Oh, and DON’T REVEAL THE ENDING.
FLICKCHART RATING: 499/1959