Girl Meets Context: This month will be dedicated to some of the best thrillers from the 1950s and ’60s. We finish things up with Clouzot’s classic mystery film. Set at an all-boys boarding school in rural France, Diabolique concerns the school’s ruthless headmaster, Michel (Paul Meurisse) and a plot to murder him that is hatched by two women: his sickly and abused wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife) and his mistress, the headstrong and seductive Nicole (screen legend Simone Signoret). The two women, tired of Michel’s mistreatment, hatch an elaborate plan to get rid of Michel over a three-day holiday. But once the deed has been done, strange things start to occur. Namely, Michel’s corpse disappears, and strange figures begin lurking about the school campus. Soon a suspicious police inspector (Charles Vanel) begins investigating Michel’s disappearance and the two women find themselves in dire straits. But are things exactly as they appear? Considered a classic upon its release, Diabolique has enjoyed a long life as one of world cinema’s classic suspense/horror films. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie in-depth. If you haven’t seen Diabolique, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: So what did you think of Diabolique? Was it…. diabolical?
Kristine: Loved it!! And… yes!
Sean: I mean, the lesbian subtext is off the charts, right? If I were a lesbian, Simone Signoret in this movie would be my idol and style icon.
Kristine: Oh, for sure. But I was surprised by all the other stuff I really enjoyed, like the schoolboys and their antics. Overall, I just thought it was a fantastique movie! And genuinely creepy.
Sean: The school boys are all delightful. It was Skippy Dies, but good.
Kristine: Ha ha!
Sean: And yes, the Gothic shenanigans are amazing. Can I ask? Did you ever, at any point, think that there were supernatural forces at work? Or did you know it was all a ruse?
Kristine: My mind was casting about for any and all explanations. I mostly figured it had to be a ruse… but how? I couldn’t figure it out and was delighted and surprised by the third-act twist. Can I say that I thought Paul Meurisse as Michel was great? He got all the best lines in the first third of the movie. I think the dialogue throughout is really top notch, and the acting is all very naturalistic, but my number one favorite line has got to be Michel’s, when he says to Christina, “Stop looking at me with your insane eyes!”
Sean: Ha! I have decided that Michel is Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Kristine: Ha!! Yes. Poor Christina! But I think Véra Clouzot, the woman who played Christina, is a great actress. When Michel forces her to swallow the rotten fish? That was how I felt my whole childhood, and watching her trying to eat it made my eyes well up with tears.
Sean: That actress was the director’s wife in real life, and get this… Five years after this movie came out, she dropped dead of heart failure.
Kristine: Shut your hole.
Sean: Yes. She was only like, 46 years old at the time and it was completely out of the blue.
Kristine: I am ripping my toes off and flailing around like a fish out of water!
Sean: Yes, the movie is infamous for that fact as much as anything else.
Sean: Yeah, totally macabre. Can I say that I thought you were going to say you hated Christina and was glad when she died.
Kristine: No, I didn’t hate Christina, I thought she was an excellent neurotic. She did frustrate me when she was like, clutching her bosom and not helping Nicole with the “murder.”
Sean: Just based on your virulent misogyny this month, I’m surprised you could tolerate Christina.
Sean: Poor, poor Mushmouth from Peeping Tom.
Kristine: Well, in your face, because I loved both our ladies this week. I hated no ladies from Psycho, either! I loved how Christina and Nicole were such opposites in every way: physically, temperamentally, spiritually.
Sean: Did you live for Nicole?
Kristine: Yes, Nicole was great.
Sean: I think that Nicole is basically Rizzo from Grease and Christina is Dorothy Gale, with those little-girl pigtails.
Sean: So, Clouzot literally beat Hitchcock to securing the rights for this movie by a matter of hours, and Hitchcock was livid.
Kristine: I love that.
Sean: So Boileau and Narcejac, the guys who’d written the novel this was based on, planned their next novel with Hitchcock specifically in mind to adapt and that became… Vertigo! They also adapted the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face.
Kristine: Have you done an exercise where you reimagined this movie with Hitchcock as director?
Sean: I don’t thing it would be that different, right? It’s pretty Hitchcockian, I think.
Kristine: We’ll never know. I must reiterate that I really loved all the side players – M. and Mme. Herboux, Nicole’s tenants; M. Drain and M. Raymond, the two gossiping, drunken (possibly gay?) male teachers at the school, and of course, all the students.
Sean: M. Herboux beating his shoe on the floor? Because he’s annoyed that people dare run the water while he’s trying to show off during a quiz show?
Kristine: Ha ha!
Sean: He was a tool.
Kristine: He was ridiculous.
Sean: He was, for me, the most Frenchy-French stereotype in the movie.
Kristine: Agreed. What was your take on the two male teachers?
Sean: Um…. M. Drain was an old queen, but M. Raymond was a lech, right? Remember when M. Raymond is like, “I’ll spend our three-day break naked” and it is gross? He says that to Nicole and she’s disgusted.
Kristine: Ha ha, yes!
Sean: Can we talk about the lesbianosity?
Sean: Except for Daughters of Darkness, of course, this is the dykiest movie we’ve watched right?
Sean: All right, all ready! Maybe not the dykiest, but one of. I was sort of dying at how the motif of “eating fish” was all over the movie, as well as tons of water imagery, and I read all that stuff as a series of dirty double entendres.
Kristine: Eating rotten fish, no less. I had that same thought. Fichet, the detective, says something about there being “too many dreams of water in this house.” And lots of stale, stagnant water is featured throughout, like when M. Drain complains about the smell of the old pool… Both the tub where they “drown” Michel and the pool where they dump his body could easily be read as quasi-uterine spaces (as well as that wicker trunk they transport his body in).
Sean: And remember that the schoolboys notice how close the two women are, and keep trying to come up with explanations for their relationship because it’s not “normal.” One boy explains to his friends, “They’re boozers! That’s why they’re always together.” Booze is just another kind of “water”….
Kristine: Huh. Well, Nicole clearly is the stand-in husband for Christina. She looks after her and literally helps support her when they are walking around together. I also noted that Nicole even wears men’s pajamas.
Sean: Nicole calls Christina “darling,” also. I thought the lesbian subtext was made most explicit by the fact that Nicole is the femme fatale… for Christina. Usually the femme fatale engineers the undoing of a male hero.
Kristine: Good point about the femme fatale. It’s interesting how Christina knows Nicole, knows she is a deviant and a liar (remember when Nicole asks Christina if she should answer her honestly, and Christina is all, “are you even capable of honestly?”, or some such snap), but she still goes ahead and trusts her with this most important of things! It reminds me of how Christina is almost taken in by Michel’s bullshit when he is trying to talk her out of the divorce. Christina’s predisposition is to believe any assertive “male” figure, right? The gender coding of Nicole is really fascinating, especially how she’s romantically paired with Michel, the alpha male. But Nicole is sort of alpha male herself, but also traditionally feminine (in exactly that “femme fatale” manner).
Sean: Yes, there’s some kind of polymorphous perversity to that Nicole/Christina/Michel triangle. And that kind of nebulous perversity is a theme that runs throughout the movie. Remember when two of the schoolboys are planning their break and one is like, ‘I’ll let you see my sister naked in the shower for a cigarette.’
Kristine: Yes. I was fascinated by the streak of sadism in how both Michel and Nicole bully Christina, telling her she is a good-for-nothing, a “little ruin”?
Sean: That metaphor mystified me. One of them says, “She’s a ruin. She’ll bury us all; ruins are indestructible.” What was up with that?
Kristine: Well, remember at the end there is a continuation of the mystery – is Christina now the one who may still be alive? Or is she a phantom who is going to haunt them both? I say, yes!
Sean: Right. Moinet, the little clairvoyant boy (a big trope in horror films), is the one who can still “see” Christina at the end. Before, he claimed to have seen Michel after death – which he must have, because Michel was still alive and sneaking around trying to scare Christina. But we assume that Christina’s death is “real,” right? A pissed-off Catholic is definitely going to be coming back for some ghostly revenge, no?
Kristine: Yes, absolutely! She will most definitely be haunting them. Don’t you think that, in the end, Christina does sort of “win”? Nicole and Michel are headed to the clink for – according to Fichet – twenty years or so.
Sean: Uh-oh, I sense a Picnic at Hanging Rock-level fight coming….
Kristine: Bring it.
Sean: I totally disagree that Christina wins in any way.
Sean: Any more than Marion Crane “wins” in Psycho. They’re both annihilated by perverse forces – though I like the turnabout here that the “perverse” force is actually just a heterosexual couple who want to be together. That’s the monstrous force in Diabolique, whereas in Psycho the monster was constructed more as a queer “other” (the cross-dressing sissyboy). So even though Psycho’s politics might be more conservative, Diabolique isn’t much better.
Kristine: I am cracking my knuckles, getting ready to throw my first punch at you.
Sean: To my mind, if anyone “wins” in the movie, it’s Fichet, the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority]. He is the one who outsmarts the culprits, and the movie oddly congratulates him even though he couldn’t manage to save Christina’s life in the process. I mean, Michel literally scares to Christina to death, then Nicole comes in to be like, “Good job, honey,” and then Fichet reveals himself and they are caught. How long was Fichet hiding in the shadows? Was he hiding there while Christina died, sacrificing her just in order to convinct someone of a crime that Fichet himself could have prevented? In fact, it seems like saving Christina’s life was never really a goal of his in the first place!
Kristine: Okay, I had similar feelings to yours, actually. But isn’t part of the ambiguity of the ending that Fichet and Christina staged her death in order to flush out Nicole and Michel’s conspiracy to murder her? Like you just said, Moinet claims to have seen Michel earlier in the movie and is not believed, but Moinet is vindicated because we know Michel was really alive. So when Moinet again claim to have seen Christina at the end of the movie, I felt like the film was suggesting that her death had been a ruse (just like Michel’s earlier) and that she was still alive.
Sean: Okay, I see the ambiguity there and agree that the movie is oddly unresolved in its ending. But I think there’s more evidence to suggest that Christina is dead than that she is alive. For one, if she faked her heart attack, why wouldn’t Christina herself just get up when Fichet reveals himself and be like, “Gotcha, you bastards! Fuck you!”? Why wouldn’t Clouzot show that? If she was pretending to be dead, and Clouzot goes out of his way to withhold that from us… That seems like a pretty big bit of narrative fuckery.
Kristine: Yes, that would be weird. Maybe Christina wanted Michel and Nicole to believe she actually was dead, to protect herself and become anonymous to them…
Sean: I just think it takes a lot of fanwanking to get there. M. Drain tells Moinet in the final scene that Christina is dead and was taken away to be buried. And we know they’re closing the school. Throughout the whole movie, the one thing Christina seemed to love was the school and all of the schoolboys. It doesn’t make sense that she would take pretending to be dead so far.
Kristine: But she is Venezuelan, and she talks nostalgically with José, one of the schoolboys who is also Spanish-speaking. The explanation could be that she’s returning to Venezuela, and that she wants people in France to think she’s dead, since she was never truly happy there. Maybe the metaphor of death is just a signal that she’s closing that chapter of her life and moving on. She is free and Nicole/Michel are going to the clink.
Sean: I will allow that this reading is possible, and that one could even make a convincing argument for it. But I’m going with Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. Christina’s dead as a doornail, sacrificed to some vague notion of “justice” that somehow doesn’t involve valuing her life. This is a RIMA’s movie (maybe even more so than Psycho is, because we don’t have any “Norma’s voice” coming in at the end to destabilize everything and make the victory of men of science less clear and absolute). And once we accept that this is a RIMA’s movie, it makes sense that Christina is erased and then shunted off-screen to some kind of liminal, occult space. In a world of masculine authority and intellect, that’s the only place a woman can wield real power. I think that all along this movie sets up Christina as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” She owns land and real estate and has economic power – but she’s a woman and a foreigner. In the logic of the movie, that’s a problem in the system that has to be resolved.
Kristine: I do agree that Fichet wins. He outsmarts Michel, Nicole and Christina. And I agree that he has no interest in protecting Christina. I actually read his line about her being absolved in the morning as pretty sinister – like he almost knew she was going to die, and her “absolution” would occur through death. It makes sense that Fichet wouldn’t necessarily rate saving Christina very highly because she has conspired to commit a murder (even though it turns out to be a hoax, Christina still believed it was real) and, thus, she’s violated the RIMA’s code, she’s transgressed against the tenets of Law and Order. Thus, she’s as guilty as Nicole and Michel, in Fichet’s mind.
Sean: We’ve talked a lot this month (with Psycho and Peeping Tom especially) about the problem of the male voyeur, and about how the horror movie is particularly about the act of voyeurism and – no shock here – that women are often the objects of the voyeur’s gaze. But we often think about that voyeuristic position as illicit or criminal. That is, that the ones who look are often perpetrators and/or monsters (Norman Bates, Mark Lewis, the rapists in The Virgin Spring, etc.) But Fichet is an example of a representative of law and order who also occupies that voyeuristic position. In fact, the detective in and of itself as an archetype is about incisive looking, about rendering others as objects of his (and rarely, her) scrutiny in order to “solve” the mystery. Remember when Christina is sleeping and she wakes up and there’s Fichet in her bedroom, smoking a fucking cigar? When she asks what the hell he’s doing there, he replies, “Watching you.” So poor Christina is on the receiving end of all scrutiny (malevolent and “benevolent”).
Kristine: I agree with all of that. What’s even more disturbing in that bedroom scene is that, once you’ve seen the movie when you rewatch you realize that that is the scene in which Fichet is beginning to piece together the truth about Nicole and Michel’s collusion. You can tell by the questions he asks Christina and his reactions to her answers. But rather than let Christina in on his theories, he keeps her in the dark. In fact, he tells her, “A nice sedative is what you need” and tries to convince her that her “nerves” are to blame for her fear and paranoia, even though Fichet is realizing that Christina’s the target of some sinister plot. The paternalism of that is pretty staggering.
Sean: So true. And thus, there’s no way to believe that Christina “wins.”
Kristine: No, I disagree. Despite how limited her powers are, I still think that Christina “wins,” in a sad and circumscribed way. If we accept that Christina does meet her death in the end of the movie, then I think she really does get resurrected – or at least, that she continue to inhabit the school as some kind of phantom presence. She gets to stay in school; she resists her own annihilation and, thus, confounds Michel and Nicole’s murder plot. That’s significant. Remember, not losing the school was one of Christina’s main concerns. Plus, Michel and Nicole punished and locked away, while she is “freed” from her ailing body and the limitations of the corporeal. This might seem sad and meager to us, but I think they represent the ultimate fulfillment to Christina.
Sean: But isn’t the school itself just another kind of prison for Christina? I have trouble thinking of that as any kind of happy ending for her. But I agree with you that if she’s afforded any kind of victory, then “sad and meager” are exactly the right words to describe it.
Kristine: Don’t you think that “sad and meager” describes the circumstances of most ghosts in horror cinema? Their goals are usually not lofty or particularly noble, right? I wish I knew more about Catholicism, but I’m sure there are tons of parallels between being a ghost (in the horror movie sense) and being in Purgatory. I think that Christina’s fate is purposefully purgatorial in nature, seeing as how she’s the former nun who participated in (what she thought was) a murder, where one of the primary objectives was preserving her assets.
Sean: Well, what other ghosts were you thinking of? In The Innocents the ghosts are most probably projections of Miss Giddens… What other ghosts with goals have we encountered on the blog?
Kristine: Okay, fine, I can’t think of any, but that is just my impression of ghosts! That they are generally in a state of arrested development, caring only about what was important to them at their time of death.
Sean: I like your ghosts/Purgatory parallel, but I’d say that’s a more sinister cosmology than you were alluding to before. Purgatory is still a place of suffering, right? Of being lost and adrift? It’s hard for me to think of Christina being sent to such a place as any kind of “victory” for her.
Kristine: Sure, I guess it’s hard to read that as a win.
Sean: It’s almost like Christina’s Catholicism predetermines her to a sad, occult fate.
Kristine: In Christina’s case, it’s like she gets what she wants, but it’s this incredibly hollow win. I amend my earlier diagnosis that she is a winner. But now I am sad.
Sean: Outside of the gender stuff in the movie, I really was caught up in the movie’s class politics. Do you agree that social class is a big thing?
Kristine: Oooh, yeah!
Sean: Thoughts? Where did you notice it?
Kristine: Well, Michel and Nicole are both of a lower social station than Christina. Christina’s truncated education comes up several times. This could serve as a partial explanation of why Michel and Nicole are so hateful and disdainful of Christina. Also, Michel and Nicole are hearty and strong, whereas Christina is this fragile, neurotic invalid, which is itself a negative stereotype of the upper class, right? And Christina cares not about her clothes or possessions, whereas Michel is this vain clotheshorse. The inference being that Christina doesn’t care about those things because she hasn’t had to strive for them the way Michel has. So far as the dynamic between Christina and Nicole, Nicole at times seems like Christina’s nurse or maid… She does all the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) when it comes to Michel’s “murder,” while Christina lies around fanning herself.
Sean: Right… Did you notice that scene where M. Drain is carrying an old umbrella but Christina has a little paper fan she’s cooling herself with? That’s such a marker of the leisure class.
Kristine: Yes! Remember that the fan was a gift from a student, however. Back to the class stuff between the women… Nicole is sexualized, and sexuality is often equated with the base desires of the lower class, right?
Sean: It’s noteworthy that Christina is Venezuelan and Nicole and Michel are both French. If Venezuela is thought of as less “developed” and wealthy than France, then there’s an interesting reversal there in making Christina the wealthy one. And France does have a colonial history. Maybe this is part of the “she’s a ruin” metaphor. It’s meant to describe the aristocracy, like Christina is Grey Gardens or something, some dilapidated old mansion.
Kristine: That could be. Michel and Nicole want to sell the school, get a fresh start, move on. Christina is clinging on to the old, to the traditional, to the outdated.
Sean: Christina also describes her native land as a place of straw sombreros and reclining in hammocks… That’s pretty idyllic.
Kristine: Right, she doesn’t come from a hardscrabble background.
Sean: But remember that Nicole can’t drive and Christina can? And also Nicole is a landlady, and kind of a crappy one at that. There’s lots of haggling over the rent.
Kristine: I also took note of Christina driving and thought it seemed against type.
Sean: Later, when Nicole pulls out the whiskey she’ll use to “poison” Michel (remember the boys’ story about the two women being “boozers”), Nicole comments on the price and how much profit is being made on by the company that sells it. I just kept seeing concerns about money, capital and status everywhere.
Kristine: Both Nicole and Michel are very concerned about how much things cost, and pride themselves on being savvy about getting good deals, right?
Sean: Yes. I just remembered that Nicole says her family couldn’t afford a car, which is why she doesn’t drive.
Kristine: Ah, I didn’t catch that.
Sean: There are lots of other little details that signal that class status is on this movie’s mind. Remember how M. Drain is offended when two of the schoolboys are planning on sharing a taxi rather than taking a bus like everyone else? I think Drain says something like, “So you’ve got money to burn, eh?” Then another boy is like, “It’s the chauffeur’s job to carry my bags!” when M. Raymond asks him where his suitcase is… The boys are spoiled, no?
Kristine: I don’t know… Maybe some of them. I loved all the boys! I cannot judge. them!
Sean: How very Notes on a Scandal of you.
Kristine: I just remembered another of my favorite lines. When one of the boys is punished by having to write “My absurd comments provoke my friends’ hilarity” over and over. The dialogue in this movie is so top notch, Sean.
Sean: So can I ask which scenes were the scariest/tensest for you?
Kristine: Some of those fantastic “corpse” shots really got me. Like Michel in the bathtub after he’s been “drowned.” And also the shot of Michel when they first open up the wicker trunk.
Sean: Yes, the abject corpse stuff is great.
Kristine: Let’s see… I thought the scene where Christina goes to look for Michel in the hotel room he has rented was pretty scary. All of the “Michel is haunting Christina” stuff was very tense and scary. Pre-murder, I thought all the scenes when Christina and Michel were interacting were really scary and awful. I didn’t think the morgue scene was scary, but I did like how the movie played it out slowly. We spent a lot of time with the non-Michel corpse, right? We see the attendant question Christina about Michel’s birthmarks and then send the men for the body, then the body on the stretcher, then the camera follows the body all the way through the corridors to the viewing room where we finally find out it’s not Michel. I think it’s very confident filmmaking to spend so much time on an anti-climax and I love it!
Sean: Does Michel rape Christina?
Kristine: In that scene in the dining room? I say yes.
Sean: Yeah, there’s a cutaway that I am confident implies a rape taking place. He forces himself on her and she is protesting and then it like, cuts to the morning.
Kristine: Oh, I for sure read that as a rape scene that is meant to be punishment for not swallowing the load her served her at the table.
Sean: The stinky fish, you mean.
Sean: That makes all the little boys riot and makes the whole house smell.
Kristine: Ha! That’s true!
Sean: Power of the pussy?
Kristine: Ugh. So, let me ask you this: Is Nicole deliberately seducing Christina?
Sean: I’d say yes. She’s the femme fatale, for godssakes! It is the job of the femme fatale the seduce the hero and bring about his undoing. Except here it’s all flipped and Christina occupies the traditional “male hero” role, the person the femme fatale targets and destroys. Can I just add that the grossest part of the movie for me was all of Christina’s hideous grunting and gurgling as she dies of a heart attack at the end.
Kristine: I thought the grossest part was the forced swallowing of the load of rotten fish.
Sean: You would!
Kristine: Okay, I know they remade this movie in the 1990s with Isabelle Adjani as Christina and Sharon Stone as Nicole. I’ve heard that it’s terrible, but I have to admit that when I just look at the casting, it seems totally right on. I feel like they nailed the casting.
Sean: I just remember the remake being flat and boring. But yes, Adjani and Stone are well cast.
Kristine: I did like how MIchel wasn’t some dumb musclehead, but he was still truly sinister.
Sean: Yeah, he’s a suave bastard.
Kristine: So, why did Christina marry this guy? Catholic martyrdom?
Sean: I have no freaking clue. He probably grills a good halibut (if you know what I mean).
Kristine: And, even though I love the setting, as you know, I wonder why the choice was made to use a boys’ school.
Sean: I thought it was to bring out the Mommy side of Christina and also to have pubescent masculinity everywhere, which ups the ante on the movie’s themes of sexual violence and male sadism.
Kristine: Well, it worked. This is a Masterpiece!
The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece!
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Stylistic triumph