Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Symbolic Icon of Christ in "Diabolique"(1955)

Re-Released Movie Poster from
The Criterion Collection
The whole world has been feeling very Catholic lately, with the election of the new pope, Francis I. As a Catholic myself, I share that excitement, and decided it was time to dig out a religious work of sorts to dedicate my post to.

So I’m going sojourn into the exciting land of foreign films for a brief moment. I’m not great connoisseur of foreign films, but I do appreciate them and try to sample a few every now and then. Recently, I saw one of the best movies I’ve ever seen- foreign or otherwise. It was the French horror classic, Diabolique (1955). My compliments go to M. Clouzot, the director. I’ve only ever felt such suspense with the better Hitchcock films and doubt I will enjoy the thrill of suspense like that ever again. Of note, Clouzot outbid the Master of Suspense for the film rights for the short story by a reported matter of hours.

Because it’s a foreign noir, it means that the potential audience shrinks, at least now of days. But Diabolique is truly a classic, a film anyone can appreciate. I’m briefly summarizing the plot, but won’t delve into it too deeply, for fear of ruining the surprise. Basically, a delicate wife and hardy mistress of the same abusive, brute of a schoolmaster plot together to kill him and then, things start falling apart…
Diabolique (1955):
Clouzot's use of light and dark helps suggest the opposition that exists
between the film's main characters at different times. 
Clouzot uses incredibly strong imagery that has indelible impact. A few elements of the film were repeated a few times to stress their own thematic importance. Who knew a tablecloth could be so potent?? It's this imagery that helps make the film so universal to audiences all over the world. 

One of the most important was an icon of Christ that is seen near the beginning and the end of the film. The wife, Christine, is said to be a former nun, a religious fanatic of sorts, with a strong sense of right and wrong- which makes it very difficult for her to stoop to the mortal sin of cold-blooded murder. Needless to say, she is seen multiple times praying in front of this icon of the face of Lord begging for help from on high in her time of need.
Diabolique (1955): Still:
Christine blowing out the candles at her small shrine

One of the chief themes of the film is that there is no perfect crime; that judgment is always delivered by an almost divine force- the force of God if you will- regardless of the planning. Clouzot stresses this with an inclusion of an icon of the face of Christ which will serve as an easy and direct symbol for God.

Really, it’s not much of stretch anyway.  In the Catholic tradition, especially for those of the Eastern sects, icons of Christ, the Virgin Mother, and the Saints bear huge importance, as they are created in order to allow a believer to channel their thoughts more easily to God. In Catholic lingo, they are sacramental of nature. So, in a sense, a sacramental, which has no power of its own, is supposed to help the believer reach the spiritual heights of the Lord and come in closer contact with Him.
Diabolique (1955): Still
Christina, the poor wife, places much value in her icon, lighting candles by it day and night. When she decides to go through with the murder, she puts out the candles- attempting to hide the icon- attempting to hide the face of God from perceiving her evil intentions. This fails and she relights the candles later in the film, prays-begs- in front of the icon begging for the intervention of God, for him to shine His face on her again. But perhaps it is too late…
Icon: Detail
Even when she puts out the candles, the icon remains visible, having almost a spiritual glow- representing the ever-present nature of God. He can discern- even through the darkness of the soul- and will find justice in that darkness- as occurs at the end of the film. The symbolic nature of the religious icon takes on a similar symbolic nature in the film.

If you haven’t perceived it yet, the icon represents God and especially the faith and the fear of God in Christine. And, in a sense, an almost divine force does deliver Christine- omnipotent, kind and driven by justice- a paternal, Godlike figure if I ever saw one- but you can figure it out for yourself.
Face of Christ
Engraving by Claude Mellan
I could not find the original icon, from which the prop would be based upon. It looked like an engraving, probably based on a painting. To my discernment, it appears from the Early Renaissance, particularly from Flanders. I found a few icons of Christ as “The Man of Sorrow” that appeared somewhat similar, but not exactly the same. What I found so incredibly about this particular face of Christ were the eyes, which appear incredibly large and compassionate. Is Clouzot sharing some of his own beliefs into the film- his belief of the mercy and kindness of a God who will surely forgive Christine? I’ll never know the answer to that question- which I pose to myself- but I do know that Clouzot should be praised for his use of such a powerful symbol in his film. 

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