2018 Film Essays

‘Les diaboliques’ and the Beginnings of the Erotic Thriller

There is a scene in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (2018) where Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) shouts to her lover “You better not be trying to Diabolique me!” The line is striking not only because it perfectly embodies the lightly satirical tone of the film (“lightly” in that it is not quite an explicit parody), but because it explicitly connects A Simple Favor and its cinematic sisters to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 thriller Les diaboliques. Stephanie’s panic arises because her supposedly dead best friend seems to be communicating with her from beyond the grave: the character’s glamorous and beautiful wardrobe reappears in the closet after Stephanie had replaced it with her own, a boy reports that he has spoken to his (dead) mother on the school playground, and he gives Stephanie a friendship bracelet that she had made for her friend.

The eerie events that follow will seem instantly familiar to anyone well-versed in the twists and turns of Les diaboliques. After Nicole (Simone Signoret) and Christina (Véra Clouzot) drown their abusive, unpleasant lover Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and drop his body into the swimming pool at the boarding school they teach at, his corpse seemingly disappears and continues living, much like a main character in A Simple Favor. The two films are mainly connected by these plot similarities, but their shared tone of sexy and sordid mystery points to the way that Les diaboliques influenced a wide range of erotic thrillers, a subgenre of sorts that had its Hollywood heyday in the 80s and 90s. Films such as Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) are indebted to the twisty narrative and stylishly violent aesthetic of Les diaboliques. A Simple Favor cheekily draws upon these films while explicitly acknowledging the deep influence of Clouzot’s thriller.

Last year, film critic Abbey Bender wrote an article for The Washington Post entitled “Where Have all the erotic thrillers gone?,” in which she describes the genre phenomenon as a combination of film noir and softcore pornography while noting how popular this extremely stylized group of films once was (and, crucially, how much fun they are to watch). The erotic thriller, much like film noir, is hard to pin down or categorize. Is it a genre, a mood, an aesthetic, a narrative pattern or something else entirely? Erotic thrillers differ from the film noirs of the 40s and 50s partially because production codes now allow sex and violence to be graphically and explicitly represented onscreen. Additionally, cultural anxieties and preoccupations have changed since the postwar period, so narratives and characters look and sound different than they once did. Erotic thrillers bring sexual motivations and manipulations to the forefront of their tense and mysterious narratives, whereas film noirs had to be more subtle, often focusing on the psychological complexities of their characters. Erotic thrillers seem to flatten out this complexity, and often paint sexually assertive women (especially queer women) as mentally unstable and violent. 

The femme fatale trope is perhaps the key to erotic thrillers, and while her lineage can be traced back to film noir, Les diaboliques offers another formulation of this complex character. Nicole embodies this figure in Clouzot’s film, yet she carries herself differently from the Hollywood femme fatales of the golden age of noir (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Gene Tierney in Laura, Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon). Nicole expertly manipulates Christina, offering compassion and friendship despite their strange romantic entanglements. (Christina is married to Michel, Nicole is his mistress, the women are close friends and partners in crime.) Nicole convinces Christina that killing Michel will benefit them both, as they will no longer suffer his abuse and will have control over the boys’ boarding school that Christina technically owns. Christina begins to see Nicole as her confidant and assertive counterpart, and the film urges viewers to believe that their friendship is balanced and solid. It is only within the last moments of the film that Nicole’s deception is revealed.

In a brilliant essay, Angelica Bastién writes that the femme fatales of the 40s and 50s were given space to be complex, emotional and hardened by the way they have been treated — and, above everything else, human. This has interesting resonance with Les diaboliques, as the film mainly focuses on the relationship between the two female protagonists: one a deadly femme fatale, the other a meek, fragile, kind-hearted woman. Despite the fact that Nicole deceives Christina and aligns herself with the abusive Michel, the women share moments of camaraderie and become quite protective of each other, demonstrating that these characters are not one-dimensional. Bastién writes that by the 1980s, films focused less on women’s individual psychological experiences, and more on the way the assertive femme fatale seduced and damaged those around her. In films such as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, sexually confident women are unhinged and violent, unsurprising considering that these films are filtered through the male gaze of their writers and directors and were released during a time of cultural anxiety regarding feminism and women’s independence. Bastién asserts that perhaps “every generation gets the femme fatale they deserve.” The erotic thrillers of the 80s, 90s and 2000s provide femme fatales who are just as stylish, chilly and sexually manipulative as their classical counterparts, yet the connection is superficial, as a lot of the depth and nuance of the trope was seemingly lost along the way.

Les diaboliques is not exactly a film noir, and it’s frequently described as a “psychological thriller.” This puts it in a more direct conversation with the erotic thriller, also sometimes referred to as the “psychological” or “psychosexual” thriller. These films are perhaps less indebted to a specific spatiotemporal context than noir, despite sharing similar preoccupations with sexuality, crime, violence and deception. With its mind-bending narrative wherein the lines between reality, hallucination and the supernatural are blurred for both the characters and the audience, Les diaboliques brushes up against Tzvetan Todorov’s literary concept of the fantastic, a textual experience in which a reader (or viewer, in this case) is unsure whether the work falls into the realm of the uncanny (that which seems supernatural yet has a rational explanation) or the marvelous (that which is confirmed to be supernatural).

Les diaboliques also foregrounds the importance of space to the psychological states of its characters, much like film noir did with its dark urban streets, cramped apartments and offices filled with shadows and Venetian blinds. Les diaboliques takes place in two main locations: the boarding school and Nicole’s apartment. Each of these places are cramped and cluttered, so old that they seem to be breathing and watching the characters. These cramped interiors feel all the more stifling when Michel is present — berating, belittling and physically assaulting Christina, making her feel existentially trapped. Empty hallways and dark corners become especially menacing when Michel’s corpse disappears from the swimming pool and reports begin to come in from students indicating that they have seen their headmaster walking around the grounds. The latter half of the film suspends itself between the supernatural and the rational, and the chilly interior of the boarding school takes on a menacing quality. This quality of confusing suspension between the uncanny and the marvelous can be glimpsed in erotic thrillers from Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Drive (2001) to Black Swan (2011).

The horror of Les diaboliques turns out to be staged, yet this does not make it any less visceral. Christina’s weakened heart finally gives out when she sees Michel’s (supposed) corpse rise out of the bathtub, and while it is revealed to the audience that he was pretending to be dead the entire time, this does not lessen the startling terror of seeing Michel’s soaking body seemingly come back to life. Whether or not the events of the psychological thriller “really” take place, they always have material consequences, often leaving the narratives unresolved. Think of Nina (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan, lying on a mattress having stabbed herself during her debut performance in Swan Lake, or perhaps Bill’s (Tom Cruise) costume mask being carefully placed on his pillow in Eyes Wide Shut. These films frequently withhold information from the audience, creating a sense of uncanniness, horror, or suspense. One is never quite sure what is happening and when, what was a vision or a hallucination, and who is truly dead or alive in these movies. While Les diaboliques provides a resolute ending, one still wonders how Michel survived being trapped underwater for long periods of time, how he hid himself so well within the walls of the boarding school. One of the most compelling things about Les diaboliques and its cinematic offspring is that viewers are always left with the sense that there are secrets untold, questions unanswered. 

Angela Morrison (@angelamorrisonn) has a Masters degree in Cinema Studies and lives in Toronto with her mom, sister and cats. She loves John Waters, Twin Peaks, coffee and Carly Rae Jepsen.