One of cinema’s great misanthropes, Henri-Georges Clouzot combined a sombre view of humanity with a supreme mastery of clockwork suspense that made him Alfred Hitchcock’s rival and equal. These two characteristics found their peak in Les diaboliques (1955), a noir thriller set in a private school on the outskirts of Paris. Headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a particularly nasty bully who mistreats not only his wife Christina (played by the director’s wife, Véra Clouzot), but also his mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and the boys in his charge. The fragile Christina, who has a heart condition, and Nicole, sporting a black eye as the film opens, are led to comfort each other and conspire to murder their common tormentor.
The oppressive atmosphere of the school, the high contrast black and white, the evocative shadows and the basic premise characterise Les diaboliques as a film noir, but as noir triangles go, this is a very strange set-up. In the classic formation, two men compete for the attention of the same beautiful temptress (Gilda, The Killers, Out of the Past) and a number of films revolve around a femme fatale seducing her lover into murdering her husband (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Les diaboliques presents a fascinating inversion of the usual pattern, with two women becoming allies to murder the man for whose affection they are meant to compete. The result is a powerful reversal of traditional male and female roles: whereas in classic noirs the (criminal) action is performed by a man on the instigation of a woman, here it is performed by two women; and while the noir perpetrators are usually a couple ostensibly wanting to get rid of the person standing between them, here they are rivals for their victim’s love, or at least they should be.
The lesbian undertones of the situation are clear, especially as the film predominantly focuses on their relationship as they plot the murder, showing their complicity, their concern for each other as well as their disagreements. As they plan a secret weekend getaway to Nicole’s pad to accomplish their dark deed, the sexual connotations of the plot become even more evident, and the crime they are about to commit suggests a ‘criminal’ sexuality, a transgression of sexual and social roles as they overthrow the authority of the man who brutally rules their lives.
The casting further enhances the ambiguities of the plot. Simone Signoret, a blonde and curvaceous 50s sex symbol whose best-known role was as a gangster moll and femme fatale in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), is here masculine, decisive and physically strong. Beautiful and immoral, she recalls the blonde temptress of classic film noir, but in her relationship to Christina, she occupies the traditional position of the man, leading the action and making decisions. The delicate, slender, raven-haired Véra Clouzot is the ultra-feminine half of the couple, and yet, in spite of her physical weakness and moral doubts, her Christina may be capable of murder. As the male/female contrast is paralleled by a good girl/bad girl opposition, traditional images of the sexes are blurred further.
Although the relationship between the two women is central to the film, the sexual ambiguity in itself is not the main theme of the film, but rather an essential part of it. Here, as in many of his films, Clouzot is concerned with the dissolution of certainties: sexual, moral and otherwise. He makes us identify with a would-be murderess confronted with increasingly incomprehensible events before a final twist changes our perception of everything we’ve seen up to that point. Correspondingly, on a formal level, horror and supernatural elements disrupt the noir world established in the rest of the film. In Clouzot’s vision, truth is mutable, love is a lie, human relationships are constantly shifting and the human heart is complex, contradictory and compromised. Formally, morally and sexually, it is a world in which nothing is ever simple or as it seems. The only certainty that remains is that, in Les diaboliques, Clouzot has created not only a perfectly crafted noir gem, but also an enduringly fascinating female double act.