Diabolique

Released:  1955

Cast:  Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel

SUMMARY:  In France, a small boys boarding school is owned and operated by the Delasalles:  Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot) owns the school, as it was part of her inheritance, but it is her husband, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) who runs the school.  Michel is a dominating and brutal man, who flaunts his mistress in front of his wife.  Like Christina, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) is a teacher at the school, and like Christina, she despises Michel for his abusive behavior.  Oddly enough, their shared hatred of Michel has developed into a friendship.  Nicole has decided that she cannot take any more of Michel’s abuse, and forms a plan to kill Michel, then pass it off as an accident.  She engages Christina in the plot, though Christina is extremely leery.  During a weekend vacation from the school, the two women travel together to Nicole’s home in a different town.  From there, Christina calls Michel and tells him that she wants a divorce.  Michel is irate, and immediately gets on a train.  When he arrives, Christina gives him several drinks laced with a sedative, and he quickly passes out.  Nicole then comes back in, and the two women drag Michel into the bathroom and put him in the already-filled bathtub.  Nicole then holds him under the water until he is dead.  The next morning, the two women wrap Michel’s body in a nylon tablecloth, put it in a large wicker basket, and take the whole thing back to school with them.  When they arrive that night, they dump the body into the school’s swimming pool.  According to their plan, the body will surface in a few days, and it will appear as though he accidentally drowned:  Nicole and Christina will have an alibi, because they were in another town.

Unfortunately, the body does not surface in the next few days, and both women become nervous.  Finally, under the guise of retrieving some lost keys, they have the pool drained – only to find that the body is not there.  Not long after this, Christina sees in the newspaper that a body had been found in the river, and had not been identified.  Sure that this is Michel, she goes to the morgue.  Although the man matches the description of Michel, it is not him.  While at the morgue, Christina meets a retired police detective named Fichet (Charles Vanel), who pushes his way into the case – which he believes to be that of a missing husband.  Fichet goes all the way back to the school with Christina, questioning her the whole time.  When they arrive on the grounds, Fichet talks briefly to the caretaker, but Christina is more preoccupied with one of the students, who is being punished.  When questioned, the boy says that Michel assigned the punishment after seeing the boy break a window with his slingshot.  He also says that Michel took the slingshot.  Nicole and Christina find the slingshot in Christina’s room, and their panic deepens.  This stress, added to her already-weak heart (she has a well-known heart condition), makes Christina so ill that she is ordered to bed, and cannot be in the school’s picture.  However, after the picture is developed, Nicole notices that Michel seems to be standing in one of the windows.  This finally proves too much for her, and she leaves the school.  That night, Fichet visits to tell Christina what he has learned.  However, Christina’s nerves are also shot, and she tells Fichet about how she and Nicole killed Michel, then disposed of his body.  Fichet seems not to believe her, but does agree to keep looking.  After he leaves, Christina starts to her noises in her apartment in the school, and gets up to investigate them.  When she continues to hear the noises, she panics, and runs back to her room, then goes into the bathroom.  There, she finds Michel’s body in her bathtub; as she watches, he starts to rise up out of it.  Christina’s heart cannot take this, and she suffers a fatal heart attack.  Michel then gets out of the bathtub, very much alive, and checks for a pulse.  When he finds none, he opens the door and lets in Nicole:  knowing of Christina’s condition, they have literally scared her to death, so that they can take over her inheritance.  However, they soon realize that Fichet is waiting for them right outside the bathroom.  At the end of the year, the same boy who was punished for breaking windows with his slingshot is seen with the slingshot:  when asked, he says that Christina gave it back to him.

MY TAKE:  Sadly, I went and spoiled this movie for myself by looking at the summary of Wikipedia before seeing the whole thing.  I’m quite pissed at myself for this, because I don’t think I would have anticipated the twist, and after seeing so many movies, it’s hard to surprise me.  I was completely convinced that Nicole and Christina had actually killed Michel – after all, it was Nicole who held him under the water, since Christina couldn’t bring herself to help (in hindsight, this makes a lot of sense). I’m not sure what I would have thought was going on when the body disappeared, but it wouldn’t have been that Nicole was in on the plot.  She did a masterful job of passing herself off as the equally-disgruntled mistress – actually, she had to really work to talk Christina into helping.  She also seemed to be gradually freaking out due to the weird occurrences, just like Christina.  I knew what would happen, so I was watching for signs, but there wasn’t any hint that Nicole was actually in cahoots with Michel.  Both of them are despicable:  their victim had a heart condition, and seemed to be one of the sweeter people on the planet.  They must have really wanted that money.  Unfortunately for them, a nosy detective finds Christina and insinuates himself into the case.  I was a little confused by this – at first, I thought that either the police suspected that Christina murdered Michel, or that he was another part of Nicole’s plot – but apparently he was a legitimate ex-detective.  Why he was hanging around the morgue is beyond me; maybe that’s how he picked up new cases.  Whatever the reason, he was smart enough to figure things out, though sadly he didn’t arrive soon enough to save poor Christina.  The ending is just credible enough to make you wonder:  there’s a ton of evidence that Christina really is dead.  However, the boy swears he say her, and when he claimed to have seen Michel earlier in the film, he was telling to the truth.  It’s highly unlikely, but there’s a little seed of doubt that niggles at you.  Sadly (and somewhat creepily), Vera Clouzot, who played Christina, actually did die of a sudden heart attack at age 46, only five years after this movie was released.

RATING:  Terrific.

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