Drowning Your Problems in Film

30 Oct 2013: Diabolique (DVD, 1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

An unsung masterwork of horror and dread, this film, like Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau, demonstrates Clouzot’s expertise at generating a claustrophobic and atmospheric environment of suspicion and recrimination. It seems to have laid the groundwork for a great deal of Hitchcock in its detailed depiction of the carrying out of a dirty deed (and oddly includes one character, a hotel room-cleaner, who is a dead ringer in appearance and vocal timbre – though speaking French – for old Al H.), Kubrick in The Shining (a typewritten page of a supposed dead man’s name over and over, a soul-sucking experience of apparent death by shock) and much of Polanski in its detailed depiction of a woman’s mental breakdown under terror, especially a lengthy sequence in which the school headmistress walks a hallway alone in pursuit of frightening sounds – not to mention the films influenced by those directors, and even video games like Eternal Darkness. Sound design is extraordinarily effective for what is left out, for the deafening silence that takes hold during the agonizing procedures of murder and the glacial explorations of dark corridors. Cinematography, which uncharacteristically for the tenor of the piece stays wide and removed (even on strange driving two-shots with wife and mistress), decenters the fear from the typical tightly-framed faces into something more interpersonal and ambient, and uses mirrors in novel ways, whether to slowly reveal the wife just before the shocking discovery of the Hitchcock doppelganger or to make bedroom two-shots of the co-conspirators a good deal eerier. Because this film pays so much attention to all of its rich details and character dynamics, and maintains an excellence of technique despite its mysteries, it is ripe for readings and interpretations that I would only limit by spelling out any particular one. The completeness of its aspects allows one to take any point as an angle through which to view the rest of the jewel, whether the education system, the treatment of employees, two-woman relationships, mental insanity, guilt, greed, etc., even as the plot maintains an unrelenting grip. This is a very rare level of cinema that probably does not get seen much anymore, if ever.

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