Halloween may be over, but something even scarier is fast approaching – Finals Week!
Les Diaboliques, 1955. (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France)
I have been warned by the director not to discuss this film with you. It’s called “Les Diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” and he has asked me not to be the Devil by revealing any of his work’s secrets to you. It seems impertinent, that: declaring me, the viewer, the Devil because I want to discuss his film with you, the potential viewer. But such is my dedication to you, dear reader, that I am willing to risk not only M. Clouzot’s posthumous wrath but also the title he threw at me in the opening sequence. It is a hard life, this film writing.
In this series I have talked a great deal about the history of film and the way that a great film, almost genetically, influences the films that come after it. This is, I feel, one of the most important ways to talk about the horror genre, because it avoids the murky water of morality while also neatly stepping around the elements of a film that make talking about it subjective. It’s true: I like all of the films presented here. But more, they are all important to the genre either as a beginning or an end, thematically and sometimes stylistically. Did I say most important ways to talk about the horror genre? Did you catch what I left out in the space between there? This is also one of the easiest ways to talk about the horror genre. It says very little about the elements of a film that engender like or dislike or that mark it as a work of art as opposed to a work of schlock. What makes art, art? What makes one work of art greater and another lesser? Are there such things as greatness in art, or is the entire discussion subjective? Should like or dislike even play a marginal role? Perhaps more relative to our discussion today, does a work which clearly defines itself as an element of genre have the ability to transcend that genre – can a horror film be art? These are hard questions, which I hope to find a voice to discuss in these columns. It is a hard life, this film writing, but I’d like to think that it’s also a meaningful one.
Let me be clear, then. What we are doing here is discussing art not entertainment. There is no reason that the two cannot collude, but there is equally no reason to suspect that they will. Those who would demand otherwise (and I’m looking at you, here, Hollywood) are on wholly unsupportable ground. Does this seem too hard edged? I’m sorry. I don’t mean it to be – but I caught myself in a previous review justifying a film’s inertia against the potential accusation that it’s boring, and I just can’t do that. In 1927 Abel Gance directed his film “Napoleon.” It was 5.5 hours long and shown on three screens at once – silent, with orchestral accompaniment. This was a film that people paid to see and sat through and then went home to discuss. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were 180 minutes long and 15,000 people stood in the rain to hear them. Our attention spans, it seems, have wained over the years . . . thus, if a film seems boring, it is often because we ourselves have made it so. If I am to be the Devil, let me remind you that “the mind is its own place, and in itself. Can make a heav’n of hell and a hell of heav’n.”
So, how then to approach a film like Les Diaboliques? Genetically it is a film which would go on to inspire Hitchcock – there’s a scene involving a bathtub which mirrors nicely the toilet scene in Psycho (without being quite so vulgar – really Alfred – a toilet?!). There’s the same sort of warning about revealing secrets. It begins to engender feelings of suspense as a prerequisite for terror – something it picked up from that long walk down the road in Val Lewton’s “Cat People,” which in turn borrowed it from that psycho-sexual tension delivered in Lugosi’s “Dracula’s” hypnotic eyes and slow, demon walk, which had their beginnings in Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse” and even earlier in the stealthy, sultry “Irma Vamp.” This is a far more sophisticated thing, though, than all that magic. It is an evolution which takes into account modern psychology and two World Wars to create a subtle, well shaped key to slot into the lock of human fright: that should sound like Hitchcock to you. It certainly did to Hitchcock.
To that end there is no real need for skeleton’s flying across the theater or seats with electronic buzzers or even skyscraper-height women in bikinis to create horror in the audience. Does that mean that it taps into our reptilian brainstems, in the way that I damned “Saw” for doing in an earlier review? It does. But this is no torture porn. A woman walking down a hall isn’t quite the, well, bloody ax that a bloody ax is. It takes skill, a deft hand, to create that key out of elements that we ourselves see every day – a hallway, a typewriter, a mirror, a door. Quite noticeably this film does it almost entirely without music, which has been one of the major crutches that films use to access that port. The largest number of screams that you will hear in this film come from children, not because they’re in pain, but because they’re playing, or upset that their food tastes horrible. There will not be blood. There will, however, be a sort of magical realism – a suggestion of something that exists beyond the veil which cannot possibly exist yet, impossibly, does in the most banal and inescapable ways.
This, of course, is how I’ve talked about film. Genetically, in terms of its content, sometimes touching on sound, sometimes touching on color. I’ve seen a lot of very early cinema, and I’ve seen what happens when a master like Fritz Lang moves from wholly silent film to talkies, from talkies to color. Those developments in the technique of cinema meant something to those directors and they used them in a meaningful way. In the film “M” there is a scene where police officers are preparing to raid a bar. They sound a horn as they seal off the street. This horn is the first sound you’ve heard in the film for quite some time, but you never really realize that you’ve been sitting in silence until the lack of silence shatters you. I could write on that at length, but the film is not wholly sound, not wholly color, and it is certainly not a filmed book to be talked about in literary terms. It is an amalgamation of its sounds, colors, words, and faces which inhabits a third space (Thanks, Professor Parke). What does the advent of Les Diaboliques’ third space mean for cinema and art? It is a beautiful film, shot beautifully on beautiful grounds, with appropriate acting, and a wonderful story. Yet out of the 1200 plus words I’ve put down in this piece, I feel I’ve done little to capture the true nature of this beast. Perhaps you will do better once you’ve seen it for yourself.