Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Business of Ghosts and Devils

Now let's talk about a horror movie of the second, more interesting category I mentioned yesterday--one with a protagonist with a deep, psychological uncertainly about him or herself. This is one of the things that makes 1955's Les Diaboliques so wicked and so wonderful. With a title that means "the devils" it's aptly named, being a tale of entities or are arguably pure evil exploiting anxiety and weakness in one soul to guide her on a path to death and damnation.

Les Diaboliques was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, but it seems impossible to find a review, analysis, or description of the film that doesn't mention Alfred Hitchcock. Supposedly, Hitchcock narrowly lost a bidding war for rights to the source novel Celle qui n'├ętait plus by Boileau-Narcejac, a pair of French mystery novelists who in the wake of Les Diaboliques would write D'entre les morts for Hitchcock to adapt into Vertigo. It's perhaps for this reason that Les Diaboliques contains a number of similarities to Hitchcock's great film. I've watched Les Diaboliques several times over the past nine years, and, as an ardent Vertigo fan, as well as a fan of Clouzot's film, I find watching it an increasingly rewarding experience.

So let's start by comparing the protagonists of the two film--of course, the most obvious difference is sex, Les Diaboliques centres on a woman, Christina, while Vertigo has James Stewart playing Scottie, but I found in both cases the rather subtly introduced backgrounds of the characters provide key insight into the psychological trouble that plagues them throughout the story. Scottie is a police detective who had previously been an attorney, while Christina is a headmistress of a school who had been a nun before deciding to marry. In both cases, we see a character who at one point in the past made a drastic career and lifestyle change, both choosing difficult, do-gooder careers. Also, for reasons unexplained, both characters are independently wealthy--or "fairly independent" as Scottie says.

Most interestingly of all, both suffer from conditions with debilitating physical effects triggered by psychological trauma. In Scottie's case, his vertigo is directly related to confronting is inability to act in a heroic manner. In Christina's case, her heart condition is more of a thematic reflection of her failure in endeavouring to lead a life of consummate caring and self-sacrifice.

Unlike Scottie, whose guilt arises from inaction, Christina is a willing, if indecisive and reluctant, participate in the crime, colluding with her husband's mistress, Nicole, in a plot to murder him. The devils, of the title, whose identities aren't revealed until a twist ending similar to the twist in the middle of Vertigo, have manipulated circumstances to where Christina has to make a crucial moral choice. Michel beats her, is cruel to the children at Christina's school, generally makes life miserable for her and refuses to grant her a divorce. Is this grounds for murder? Christina, the former nun, decides it is but the high moral standards she holds herself to contribute to building anxiety as evidence of Michel's return from death begins to crop up in small, ghostly clues, just as Scottie begins to see the deceased Madeleine everywhere he goes.

The amount of supernatural actually present in both stories is about the same and intriguingly debatable. The expressionistic photography of Christina alone in the dark school at the end in an increasingly transparent nightgown is magnificently ghostly. Plot, heart condition, anxiety, and guilt all come together in a terrific final sequence.

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