DVD Review: Diabolique (Criterion Collection)

You can tell a book has a great story when Alfred Hitchcock desperately wanted the right to turn this into a film. Beaten by a couple hours, according to legend, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Celle qui n’etait plus” turned into Clouzot’s followup to his masterpiece The Wages of Fear and ended up a masterpiece in its own right. Diabolique, as it’s known in the U.S, was released internationally as Les Diaboliques and was a massive hit in Clouzot’s native France. It’s since become a film that has inspired directors en masse ever since because Clouzot developed the primer on how to establish tone and pace in a thriller genre.

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) runs a school and is a fairly horrible human being. The school is owned by his wife, the frail Christina (Vera Clouzot) but all is not well between them. He flaunts his relationship with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), a teacher at the school. Bonded by their mutually bad treatment at Michel’s hands, the two band together to kill him and dispose of the body. When the body disappears, strange things begin to happen. It all leads up to a relatively famous twist ending.

What makes Diaboliqueso special is its tone. Clouzot has crafted the type of tone every horror film and every darkly dramatic thriller has been copying ever since. It’s in the buildup to the murder, and the body’s disappearance, where we find our tension. Clouzot carefully builds up his characters and then lets loose the madness, letting us see how they react to everything going on around them. He’s developed his characters so well, giving them us a reason to want to see them commit murder and horrifying us when it seems to be blowing back at them.

There are plenty of classic films that have aged considerably over the years. Diabolique isn’t one of them.

The main reason why the film is being released is because of the updated a/v capacity and is the first time the film has been given a DVD release in a widescreen format. The film’s original format has been restored as well as cleaned up since its initial release onto DVD. It’s not a great transfer by any means, though, but it is an improvement on the original transfer.

This is a Criterion set loaded with historical figures and relevance. There’s an introduction from Serge Bromberg, who did a documentary on Clouzot, to the film as well as a selected scene commentary from French film scholar Kelley Conway. A video interview with film critic Kim Newman and an essay from Terrence Rafferty is included.

Diabolique is a classic of cinema that deserves to be watched, if only to see where many of the clichés of thrillers come from.

Criterion presents Diabolique. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Starring Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzet, Paul Meurisse and Charles Vanel. Written by Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi based on the novel “Celle qui n’etait plus” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Running time: 114 minutes. Not Rated. Released on DVD: May 17, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.

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