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3 April 2010

Diabolical Saturday

After Good Friday, it seems appropriate that Diabolical Saturday should come next. I went to see Les diaboliques at the BFI, which I have been wanting to rewatch for quite some time. I first saw the film at the Phoenix in Oxford, during my A-levels, but at the time, black and white films and those films made before 1990 were not my thing and so the film failed on both counts. Nonetheless, I have read numerous good things about the film since then and I knew that a second viewing was required.

And I came out grinning at the diabolical cleverness of the whole thing, even though it's not exactly a pleasant film. Much of the film comes out as a sort of Fatal Attraction meets Thelma & Louise, only with a lot more gruesome plot details. Michel Delassalle is the headmaster at a small, French boarding school in the 1950s. He is also a huge asshole. His wife Christina, the headmistress, owns the school and it is clear that he married his submissive, fragile wife largely for her money. Michel is also screwing one of the other teachers, Nicole, who is a combination of Alex Forrest and Sue Sylvester from Glee. He treats both women badly, battering them, bullying them and coercing them into having sex.

So, the two women come up with a plot to get rid of him. Actually, Nicole, the bossier, more confident one of the two, comes up with a plan and convinces Christina to go along with it. They will both drive to Nicole's house in the country and then Christina will call Michel and ask for a divorce, knowing he will come to get her. They will then slip some sleeping pills into his whiskey and drown him in the bath before driving back to the school and dumping Michel's body in the dirty, sludge-filled swimming pool, which appears, Chekhov-style right at the start of the film. They will make sure Nicole's lodgers, living upstairs, see them both in the house so they have an alibi.

All goes to plan until the swimming pool is drained...and all that remains of Michel is his lighter. Oh noes! Actually, not so oh noes as pretty much everyone at the school is delighted that Michel has gone walkies. It means the teachers don't have to drink plonk with their dinner and the pupils have to stand in the corner when they are naughty rather than getting beaten. Of course, Christina starts to wonder whether someone has moved the body and is on to her or whether Michel has risen from the dead and as she has a heart problem, this cannot end well.

The film is remarkably suspenseful throughout. On the morning when Christina runs away with Nicole, the camera follows her around her bedroom, getting ready and gathering her things, for about five minutes. Even in this scene, the tension is high: will Michel wake up or will she get away? Again, during the murder scene and, indeed, from the moment Michel arrives at Nicole's house until the end of the film, I was on edge: will something go wrong? Will they get caught? There is a finely executed twist at the end (two twists, really), which was what led to me grinning, although the idea had crossed my mind at several points earlier in the film.

The acting is generally superb, although Christina's repeated fainting episodes, look spectacularly hammy. Like Sue and Alex, though, Nicole steals every scene she is in with those cool, icy stares and her calm calculations. According to IMDb, Hitchcock only lost out to Henri-Georges Clouzot for the film rights to the novel on which Les diaboliques is based by a matter of hours. I think the resulting film would be something Hitchcock would be proud to put his name to.

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