Les Diaboliques: Stripes and Polka Dots

Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret in “Les diaboliques” (1955) | Filmsonor, Véra Films

After re-watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 Les diaboliques recently (and realising how even to this day it works on the intended level up to the very end), I have kept returning to one of Raymond Gid’s film poster versions. To one element, to be more exact, the standing silhouette. I wouldn’t like to reveal essential details from the story for those of you who haven’t watched the film, so I will just say that it’s incredible how poster art, and, by that, I mean illustration, can capture the essence of a film. And if you have seen the movie, you will certainly note how it sums up much of it.

The story is set in a French provincial town, at a boy’s boarding school. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the domineering headmaster, Christina (Véra Clouzot) is his weak-heart wife and the owner of the school, and Nicole (Simone Signoret) is a teacher and his mistress. Delassalle appearantly starts to mistreat his mistress, too, so the two women plot a revenge. Clouzot used unprecedented twists of the plot and the element of suspense and even pure horror to harrowing visual effect. But it is the way the director depicts the decaying qualities of his characters and the capacity for evil of all human beings, on the background of terrifying images, that makes Les diaboliques a truly great noir, one of those great dark tales of a crime gone awry.

Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret in “Les diaboliques” (1955) | Filmsonor, Véra Films

Raymond Gid’s poster captures so wholly the steely mistress and the dainty wife and yet another visual element that stood out for me. The costumes. Hardly ever have I seen such interplay of stripes, polka dots and gingham patterns on screen. At any given time Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot are on screen, a black and white piece of clothing in some kind of geometric design appears, too. Their dressing style however couldn’t be more different. Nicole’s costumes are very clean-cut and masculine inspired (classic trench coat, cinched shirt-dress, pencil skirt and cardigan, men’s pajama), while Christina’s are ultra-feminine (a trench coat with more ornate details, pleated gingham dress, a delicate white blouse and long black skirt, a knitted wrap, a night gown).

They are very different and yet not exactly rivals. It is a very powerful reversal of traditional male and female noir characters. Beautiful and immoral and with a blonde short-cut, Simone Signoret recalls the classic noir femme fatale, but in her relationship to the frail, slender and long-haired Christina, she, resolute, imposing and physically strong, occupies the traditional position of the man, a position that is very visible by simply observing the body language of the two protagonists (just look at the images in this article and it becomes very obvious).

Clouzot doesn’t intend to draw on the bad girl/good girl opposition though. Because Christina’s own morality is questioned when she starts plotting with Nicole against her husband. And the black and white costumes are used to enhance the ambiguity and to blur that line even further. The good and evil are rendered not as two separate entities, but as the duality of the human nature. Everyone is mutable, everyone has a dark side, anyone can be compromised, seems to say Clouzot, who shows a somber view of humanity – that that’s what makes Les diaboliques a quintessential film noir.

Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret in “Les diaboliques” (1955) | Filmsonor, Véra Films


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