Last week’s film was so stunning – I’ve hardly stopped thinking about it. It’s a tough act to follow so I had little choice but to pull out the big guns with an absolute classic – one I’ve never seen but have always intended to.
Mental May seems to have evolved before our very eyes – starting with a real is-she/isn’t-she psychological thriller to women living unconventionally (for the period) on a remote island in Brittany. This week is about murderous French dames finally taking destiny into their own hands – while looking good smoking and being impossibly photogenic. No mean feat.
The wife and mistress of a loathed school principal murder him with the perfect alibi, but then his body disappears.
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Starring: Simone Signoret • Véra Clouzot • Paul Meurisse
Christina Delassalle: There is only one possible end. We are monsters. I don’t like monsters.
Michel Delassalle (Meurisse) is a dreadful bastard. He’s also the tyrannical headmaster of a slightly rundown Parisian boarding school, which is actually owned by his wife, the sickly Christina (Véra Clouzot). Christina – or Cri-Cri as her husband likes to call her – has a heart defect and is very frail. Also at the school is teacher, Nicole Horner (Signoret) – who is also in a relationship with Michel.
Surprisingly, rather than being sworn enemies, the women seem to have a pretty solid relationship which sees them supporting one another through the hell of having to put up with Michel. Nicole gets knocked about on the regs, while Christina is verbally torn apart by her husband’s caustic words. At one point he refers to her as a ‘ruin’ yet she is reluctant to ask for a divorce because of her strong religious leanings.
As the school breaks up for the holidays (more of a long weekend), the women are cooking something up which could prove rather fun. They conspire in corners talking about poison, leading one of the students to speculate about a drinking problem. It soon becomes clear that Nicole wants to do away with mean-spirited Michel and Christina has reluctantly agreed to help her.
Christina manages to lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment outside Paris by finally threatening divorce, which he is very against. When he arrives he tells her to get her bags and promises her that the scandal of a divorce will poison her reputation at the school. Unlike her brute of a spouse, Christina actually cares about her all-boy students and wants what’s best for them.
While posing the topic of divorce, she pours him a drink laced with poison. Christina up until this point has been flipping back and forth on the whole murder thing. Just as she’s about to call it all off, Michel slaps her face and it’s chink-chink motherfucker. He necks three large glasses and falls unconscious on the bed. Nicole then arrives to finish off the job, which is to say she’s been upstairs all this time making herself a nuisance to her tenants, thus building a convincing alibi, should they need one.
She drowns Michel in the tub – much to the consternation of the couple she’s renting to – who can’t believe she’d dare run a bath so late in the evening…
The women have it all figured out and return to the school the next day with Michel’s corpse in a wicker hamper. They throw it in the pool under cover of night, figuring everyone will think it’s an accident when his body floats to the surface.
Returning to relative normality while they wait for the body to be discovered, Christina struggles with her nerves. Every time someone walks near the pool, she almost has a heart attack which isn’t that farfetched given her health concerns. When she can take no more, she begs Nicole to get the pool drained, under the guise of them having lost their keys in the water. In a particularly icky scene, one of the boys dives into the corpse-flavoured soup to retrieve them but only turns up Michel’s lighter.
The rest of the teachers, staff and students are speculating about where their headmaster could be but as a dirty dog with a filthy reputation, it’s assumed he’s just popped off to chase broads. Plus, life is far nicer without him. As time ticks on, the body fails to materialise and the caretaker empties the pool to reveal… nada. Diddly squat. Absolutely fuck all.
Where’s the damn body, yo?
Well, both women understandably start to freak out about the missing body and their friendship starts to bow under the pressure. When a body rocks up in the Seine, Christina is convinced it’s Michel and goes to the morgue to identify it. Here she bumps into De Niro-esque detective Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel) who’s curious and vows to help her find hubs. Which makes things even more stressful.
In the meantime, bizarre things are happening around the school – yes, even weirder than a missing cadaver. One of the boys claims to be going through with a punishment served by the headmaster himself for breaking a window, even though nobody’s seen him for days. And the suit he was wearing when he died also shows up from the dry cleaners. None of this mystery is doing our guilty babes much good, least of all the delicate flower Christina.
When Michel’s disembodied head appears in the background of a school photo, it’s the final straw for Nicole who decides to flee. Christina, now confined to her bed by the doctor, refuses to go with her and tells her she never wants to see her again. She then admits everything to Fichet in the middle of the night. Rather than arrest her, he tells her to get some rest, assuring her she’ll feel better in the morning. Will she?
Man this is a loooong arse review. It’s a great movie though and the ending is wicked, though disappointing for obvious reasons. I’m not going to give it away though don’t worry. I will say that I found the last ten minutes incredibly tense and atmospheric – and I loved the overall concept of the guilty party being gas-lit by a potential ghost.
Both central performances are tight AF. The two women are very different, light and dark if you will but it’s refreshing to have them on the same side. It’s progressive I would think for the time.
Apparently this was the movie that inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho which is an accolade to be proud of – and as far as I’m concerned it delivers the tension just as well. Honestly, the last line is haunting and personally, I’d like to see that sequel.