Diabolique (1955) (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 5.17.2011)
Pauline Kael once famously said that she rarely watched any film more than once. Diabolique makes an interesting case for both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. When I first saw Henri-George Clouzot's celebrated and influential thriller, I was extremely impressed by the metaphysical mystery at the film's core (a dead man's body disappears in a way that suggests he may have come back to life to haunt the women who murdered him). However, the film's twist ending left me disappointed, not because it's predictable or unconvincing, but because it reduces the film's suggestive enigma to a literal-minded trick. Watching the film a second time with full knowledge of this twist has an effect that is both enriching (the complexity of the film's narrative strategies is exposed) and diminishing (the film's haunting metaphysical elements are drained of their evocative power).
Upon first viewing, we experience the film's mystery entirely from Christina's blinkered, disoriented perspective, but our second viewing puts us inside the scheming rationalism of Nicole's perspective. On the plus side, the second viewing is an entirely new experience, almost a second first viewing. However, this second viewing lacks the suspense and suggestiveness that made the first viewing so rewarding. Both viewings leave us on a note of stifling logic -- a big part of the appeal for some viewers -- but the familiarity of repeat viewings also confirms Clouzot's masterful command of offscreen narrative.
Criterion previously released Diabolique on DVD in 1999, but that disc had no extras to speak of. While still relatively light on extras, this new disc is a marked improvement. Features include an essay by Terrence Rafferty, the film's trailer, a 15-minute introduction by Serge Bromberg, a 16-minute interview with genre film expert Kim Newman and a selected-scene commentary by French film scholar Kelley Conway. Those seeking a more thorough investigation of Clouzot's life and work need look no further than Criterion's terrific The Wages of Fear Blu-ray, which includes the nearly hour-long Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant.
If you're a fan of Diabolique, you have several reasons to be pleased with this disc, but the transfer may be a source of some disappointment. While this is by no means a bad transfer, those accustomed to Criterion's stunning work on films of comparable vintage (ie. Pale Flower), may be surprised by the lack of contrast and detail in many shots. While this isn't as dramatic an upgrade as you may be expecting, it seems likely that this is as pristine a transfer as modern technology (and faithfulness to Clouzot's intent) will allow. -- Jonathan Doyle