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Is Les Diaboliques the scariest film ever made?

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s chilling classic is screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival this weekend. Geoffrey Macnab investigates why the 1955 film still exercises such malevolent power and looks at how much it has affected modern French thrillers

Friday 20 August 2021 10:24 BST
Véra Clouzot in ‘Les Diaboliques’ – a film of extreme creepiness and perversity
Véra Clouzot in ‘Les Diaboliques’ – a film of extreme creepiness and perversity (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

When French director Henri-Georges Clouzot was making his twisted psychological thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), he wanted the mood on set to be as sour as possible. One ruse he allegedly used was serving his cast members fish that was well past its sell-by date.

It is hard to verify this story but there is an early scene in the film in which the director’s wife is shown on camera ready to gag at the food she is being forced to eat. Véra Clouzot plays the beautiful but sickly Christina Delassalle, the wife of the boorish and bullying Michel (Paul Meurisse), who is the head teacher at a grim French boarding school near Paris. The school is owned by Christina but she is utterly in thrall to her husband. She even puts up with his open affair with one of the teachers, the cynical, world-weary Nicole (Simone Signoret). When very rancid-looking fish is served up for lunch, Michel makes Christina eat every last morsel. “Swallow, swallow,” he commands. She looks fit to vomit but does exactly as she is told.

“One of the most terrifying films ever made,” was how the Edinburgh International Film Festival programmers described Les Diabioliques when they screened it as part of a 2003 Clouzot retrospective. That may be stretching it given that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror picture at all. But what can’t be denied is the film’s extreme creepiness and perversity.

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