Reviews and notes
The setting is a French provincial school for boys; the headmaster's wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) conspire to murder him. It sounds simple, but the characters seem fearfully knowing, and there are undertones of strange, tainted pleasures and punishments. According to the director, Clouzot, 'I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts - the child who hides her head under the bedcovers and begs, "Daddy, Daddy, frighten me."' Clouzot does it, all right; his Grand Guignol techniques are so calculatedly grisly that they seem silly, yet they succeed in making one feel queasy and sordid and scared.
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Hamish Hamilton, 1982.
Revistiing LES DIABOLIQUES
after more years than one might readily admit, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether what once carried such a charge of fright might now seem rather on the tame side. The short answer, happily, is: not a bit of it.
The frontiers of graphic gruesomeness have, of course, if not necessarily for the better, rolled back a fair way since 1955, when Clouzot's film was made. But to the extent that LES DIABOLIQUES
now seems comparatively reticent in the matter of physical horror, this works to its advantage by highlighting its power of suggestion.
In a way, too, foreknowledge of how the artifical plot is worked out, even when it is admitted that this depends in one respect on an invocation of coincidence that borders on the fraudulent, serves to sharpen appreciation of how cunningly Clouzot sets about putting us through the hoops.
Certainly the film's stylistic properties are formidable: the stealthy pace, the minatory atmosphere (that dank swimming pool half-covered with algae into which the body is decanted). Clouzot summons up his unlovely milieu with a novelistic eye for the telling detail and with the instinct judiciously to hold in check the grotesquerie of the incidental characters.
And, no less important, his use of the sound track is unerring: he knows the effectiveness of silence and of the sudden aural intrusion, as with the screeching train whistle and rattling faucet which punctuate the build-up to the murder. Indeed, a case might reasonably be made that the scenario's manipulation of the central figure - though for the sake of new viewers, one must refrain from elaboration - metaphorically chimes in with Clouzot's own (sadistic?) manipulation of his audience.
Whether LES DIABOLIQUES
amounts in the last resort to more than an intricate contraption for saying boo must perhaps remain debatable. But I am inclined to think that it does. There is grim humour here, but no sense of jest: when Clouzot's heroine talks about her belief in the existence of hell, we are apt to take her at her word.
- Tim Pulleine, Films and Filming, December 1985.
Weblink: A Film Review by James Berardinelli
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