The Other Clouzot: Vera Clouzot’s Impact on LES DIABOLIQUES

|Finn Odum|

Diabolique screens at the Trylon Cinema on 35 mm from Friday, March 11 to Sunday, March 13. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit trylon.org.


She was funny, insufferable, generous, crazy, unhappy and capable of making people unhappy; she was sick too; I loved and hated her and, oddly enough, I miss her.

Simone Signoret on Véra Clouzot [1]

Les Diaboliques is one of those rare, gunshot-heard-around-the-world type of movies. Upon its release, its startling imagery and shocking twist ending sent ripples through the film industry. For decades, Les Diaboliques was a blueprint for the genre, spawning thrillers like Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte,and Games (the latter of which also starred actress Simone Signoret). Upon its release, it was hailed as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s greatest work yet.

Retrospectively, I think some of that credit should’ve gone to his wife.

Véra Clouzot was a writer, an actress, and the heart of some of her husband’s best films. It’s hard to determine what Henri-Georges’s career would look like without her; while he definitely made good movies before they met, Véra was the reason he’d made at least two of his best films. Without her, movies like La Vérité and this essays’ subject, Les Diaboliques, would not be the same.

Véra and Henri-Georges met during the production of Miquette, the director’s follow-up to Manon. Clouzot was reluctant to make the comedy, only going through with the production due to contractual obligations. Maybe that’s why Miquette ended up bombing critically and commercially; audiences could feel that his heart was not in the production. Clouzot’s marriage to Véra was the only good thing that came out of it.

Her impact on his life––and his films––was instant. Scorned by contractual obligations–and the French government, who’d already banned him from filmmaking once––Clouzot founded an independent production company named Véra Films. Their first production was Wages of Fear, an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel. Clouzot wrote in a role specifically for Véra; though it wasn’t the biggest in the scheme of the film, the rewrite indicated that Clouzot was willing to do anything for his wife––who, as it happened, wasn’t that great of an actress compared to her contemporaries.

I don’t see being a mediocre actress as a mark against Véra, especially since her love for the camera is how we got Les Diaboliques. After the success of Wages of Fear, Véra encouraged her husband to read and get the rights to the She Who Was No More, a thriller by authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Clouzot acted instantly, snatching the screenplay rights before his main contemporary, a little British man named Alfred, had the chance.

Clouzot and his brother––who served as his co-writer for several of his films––spent 18 months turning She Who Was No More into the vastly different Les Diaboliques. The director’s first decision was to do away with the novel’s insurance scam plotline (which he found unfilmable). He then made the moderately questionable decision of erasing the lesbian subplot and swapping the gender of the main characters. Film scholars swear that it wasn’t due to homophobia, and that instead it was because he wanted to give Véra a bigger role. I’ll give Véra a pass since she didn’t write her character––Clouzot, however, is definitely on thin ice.

Most of Clouzot’s decisions about Les Diaboliques were made with Véra in mind. In addition to the story changes, Clouzot selected his cast based on who he thought would support his wife the best. He settled on Simone Signoret, an incredible actress that Clouzot happened to not like that much. She was somewhat friends with Véra, having met the Clouzots when her husband was in Wages of Fear.

Their friendship did not last. Like most of Clouzot’s films, the production of Les Diabolique was tumultuous from all ends. Both Véra and Henri-Georges were hard to work with. Cast and crew members described the director as a tense, cold man with no humor. All of his passion went to his wife, resulting in constant interventions with production. Paul Meurisse, who played Véra’s on-screen husband, once recounted Clouzot’s attempts to film Véra in a better light and mute the lighting on Signoret. The chaotic filming took its toll on said actress; by the end of the film’s production, Signoret and her husband were no longer on speaking terms with either Clouzot.

In spite of the chaos that unfolded during its filming, Les Diaboliques was an instant phenomenon upon its release. It was remade several times, the most famous of which starred Sharon Stone, Kathy Bates, and Trylon-icon Isabelle Adjani. The twist ending influenced thrillers for years afterwards. It’s even cited as author Robert Bloch’s favorite film––leading me to wonder if it had any impact on the writing process for his most famous novel, Psycho.

Clouzot’s career took a dive after Les Diaboliques. His follow-up movie was a documentary about Picasso, who was an old acquaintance of Clouzot’s. Then came Les Espions, a lesser-known spy film that bombed in France and didn’t get a wide release in America. Clouzot salvaged what was left of his reputation with La Vérité, a powerful Brigette Bardot vehicle that served as her biggest commercial success. We have Véra to thank for that one, too, since she co-wrote the film with her husband. La Vérité was powerful and incredibly well-received. It should’ve been the boost Clouzot needed after a commercial bomb.

Shortly after filming for La Vérité wrapped, and before they could celebrate their commercial approval, Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack. She was two weeks away from her forty-seventh birthday.

Without her, Henri-Georges was not the same. In a cruel combination of his own failing health, his grief for Véra, and the new wave of French directors who wanted to stamp him out, Clouzot’s career fell to the wayside. By the time he retired, he’d been convinced by his peers that some of his greatest movies, Les Diaboliques included, were worth nothing. He died alone and was buried beside Véra.

When film scholars talk about Véra’s role in Les Diaboliques, they often water it down to the fact that she died the same way her character did. Writing her off like that ignores her influence on the movie and downplays the impact of her death on her husband. Perhaps it’s silly to think that people will suddenly start giving her credit decades after her death. But if any movie space is going to give her a second glance, it’s a place like the Trylon.


NOTES

[1] Delphine Simon-Marsaud, “Histoire Orale Des Diaboliques d’Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Cinemateque, October 24, 2017, https://www.cinematheque.fr/article/1112.html.

Edited by Michelle Baroody