In Les Diaboliques, Clouzot superbly establishes a creeping sense of unease and malaise at the French provincial boarding school owned by Christina but presided over by the snide and tyrannical Delassalle. Echoing Jean Vigo’s celebrated comedy Zéro De Conduite (1933), the pupils talk just as savagely as schoolboys really do and obviously come from far wealthier homes than their teachers. What’s more, they know it. Delassalle meanwhile bullies Monsieur Drain (Pierre Larquey) out of his nightly glass of wine and aggressively forces his saintly, birdlike wife to swallow the rotten fish the canteen buys cheap and dishes up without relish to save money. No one dares question the head’s authority or indeed Nicole’s wearing sunglasses at dinner, obviously concealing a black eye. Delassalle’s public flaunting of his relationship with Nicole in front of the children is as utterly queasy as it is humiliating for Christina, a kindly former nun from Venezuela who has inherited the property and whom Michel has clearly married for her money. Only a man as horrid as Michel could drive Christina to conspire in murder and his forcing himself upon her sexually appears to be the final straw.
After establishing this corrupt state of affairs, Clouzot shows us the murder in near real-time, making expressionistic use of sound as a train whistle announces the victim’s arrival in town and relishing the details of the brass weight and the doped bottle of Johnnie Walker. From then on, the director switches seamlessly from crime melodrama to supernatural thriller as Michel’s corpse disappears from its watery grave in the murky depths of the school swimming pool. Signoret is particularly well cast for the Spanish-style ghost story that follows (complete with Charles Vanel’s rationalist detective on hand to raise doubt), having starred in an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin two years earlier and hence boasting prior experience of being haunted by the dripping spectre of a drowned man on celluloid. Signoret is tough throughout in the more masculine role but Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife, provides an impressive study in fear as a good woman whose frail heart and Catholic guilt are being viciously preyed upon. Tragically, Véra Clouzot herself would die of a heart attack in 1960, a fact that undeniably gives Les Diaboliques an additional ghoulish frisson today.