April 26, 2009

Morality and the malevolent: Les Diaboliques

Une peinture est toujours assez morale quand elle est traqique et qu'elle donne l'horreur des choses qu'elle retrace
A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and it conveys the horror of the things it depicts: Barbey d'Arevilly

Henri Clouzot's film, Les Diabolique, is about a school where the headmaster has married into money, his wife is ill, and he is waiting for her to die so that he can take over the school with his mistress. He is unpleasant and resented by his wife- who knows of his mistress and knows that he has abused her as he has abused the wife. Indeed the headmaster seems to abuse everyone he comes across- his cruelty is his only constancy. His mistress and the wife then come to agree to murder him- they complete the task and the film is about the unravelling of a sequence of events with a twist at the end which lead us from that task to a denouement. I do not wish to give anything away- but merely to explore some of the themes of the film- and in particular the theme announced above- the theme of instruction and also the theme of guilt.

The film is in a sense less about a murder than about the consequences of a murder on one particular character- the wife of our headmaster- whose inner psyche is the map we have of what happens. Our camera is focussed through her eyes- we see what she sees and not what other characters see and believe. This means that we perceive neither those things which she does not know nor the mechanism- particularly of detection- which she is not aware of. We are being directed to take her view of the story, which maintains the suspense- and also her view of any actions or reactions committed. Her view is formed by her Catholicism- ultimately this is a film seen through the eyes of an ex nun and we have to appreciate that in order to appreciate how we see guilt and eventually instruction in this film.

In the corner of the room of the wife is a picture of Christ with a candle beside it- illuminating as it were the entire film with its shadow. The shadow of that picture, the shadow of her religious faith dominates the film: she is, her husband says, a little ruin- in that she shares a characteristic with her house and school- but her faith serves to illuminate her from within. What Clouzot in the film demonstrates though is the way in which her faith which serves as her sanctum from a horrible husband turns into a weapon to turn against her: his death causes her to worry, to be unable to stop conceiving of how things are going wrong and ultimately causes her to succumb further to her illness. She cannot stop believing in the supernatural and even beyond the grave, her husband has the ability to make her believe in his powers to destroy her life. As opposed to the mistress who fears no hell, the wife cannot but fear hell- and if her earth after the murder becomes a kind of hell- for her it is more plausible because it is an anticipation of what she fears.

Conscience thus turns into a canker at the centre of this film- and conscience is the faculty by which we instruct ourselves. Our heroine is undermined by her conscience- she knows that what she has attempted is wrong- she knows that she must pay and every shadow on the wall- even or especially the shadow of Christ under the candle is a reminder. Barbey d'Aurevilly's quote begins the film and I think it is worth seeing the entire movie as a commentary on it- what Clouzot is describing is a painting that is tragic because it is moral. The horror of what his painting depicts is the abuse of morality- and the instruction is not obvious. The wife is confined by her morality- both because she cannot divorce her husband and is so driven to desperation- and because her morality drives her mad. Her physical weakness here turns into a dispositional weakness- she cannot but regret the actions she takes. Whereas her husband's depravity is all the more effectual for being without conscientious scruple.

Ultimately though this is a Catholic tale itself. The wife afterall suffers because she sins. Here it is worth noting the film's setting- as we complete the painting. The school and the world by implication are in a delapidated building- the teachers themselves all exhibit various kinds of corruption- we are in the world of Bresson. The argument from Clouzot here is that the wife's suffering proceeds from her corruption, the fact that she yielded- but the fact that she is corrupt is another expression of the world's corruption. Clouzot's tale is a sophisticated theological exploration which reminds us that in a world that is corrupt- a virtuous conscience can be lead to evil ends by Machiavellian means and that temporally such a conscience is a disadvantage. In a world of sin, morality can be a weapon of the malevolent.


James Higham said...

At least he was waiting for her to die, I suppose.

edmund said...

why didn't the mistresss just leave him?

Gracchi said...

Edmund to answer your question I'd have to give away a major plot point!

Gracchi said...

James ditto!