Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique is a thriller released in 1955. That said it is almost always compared to the works of Hitchcock, with whom its history is explicitly intertwined. But upon a few more careful viewings, culminating with the screening last night at the Cinematheque International of Philadelphia, other layers to the film are exposed. Which is to say Clouzot is drawing from a pool of cinematic ideas varied in a range that goes well beyond Hitchcock.
Firstly, one cannot help but notice Clouzot’s use of mirrors and reflections throughout the second half of Diabolique. Immediately, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee is called to mind with all its dream spaces and smoky mirror effects. Cocteau is constantly confronting his audience with double images of his characters as they, in-turn, confront their double within the reflections he’s photographed. Mirrors in the cinema of Cocteau are representative of the psychological conflicts going on within his characters, and it appears Clouzot, primarily in the climatic sequence of the film, makes use of this technique almost explicitly.
But to talk about the climatic sequence of Diabolique (in which Vera Clouzot pursues the ghost of Paul Meurisse) one must let Carl Theodor Dreyer into the conversation. Where the Cocteau influence was a strictly visual one in Clouzot’s film, Dreyer’s influence is felt on the soundtrack. An extensive use of diegetic sound was uncommon in cinema in the 1950s, but its best examples come from Germany of the early 1930s, right before the rise of the Third Reich. The two films in particular I am thinking of are Fritz Lang’s M and Dreyer’s Vampyr. I pinpoint Dreyer of the two because the diegetic sound of his film is often manipulated and exaggerated for dramatic effect, a mechanism Lang refrained from employing on his film M. The sounds of Vampyr are strewn throughout the climatic sequence in Diabolique, and used toward great effect. The incorporation of all these filmic styles and elements are instrumental to the success of Clouzot’s Diabolique.