Diabolique (The Criterion Collection, 1955)
I Saw the Devil (Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2010)
Separated by 55 years a legendary French chiller and a recent Korean gut-wrencher made for an excellent late-night double feature. Warning: If you do the same, don’t count on sleeping afterwards.
The Stories: You may not have seen Diabolique, but chances are you have felt Diabolique–reflected in dozens of movies made afterwards (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and the play adaptation Deathtrap are just the tip of a sharp iceberg), it’s surely one of the most influential films ever made. Two subsequent TV redos and the shallow 1996 remake, with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, are mere footnotes to the experience.
Screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac adapted their own novel, which Hitchcock was eager to film. Beating him to the punch was Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose earlier masterpieces about morally sticky situations, Le Corbeau (1943) and The Wages of Fear (1953), have also been given the Criterion treatment. (Hitchcock turned their next novel into 1958’s Vertigo, no slouch, either.) Clouzot turns the screws very deliberately in this story of a loveless triangle. The tyrannical Michel (Paul Meurisse, a familiar face in Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime thrillers) runs a crumbling boarding school owned by his fearful wife, Christina (played with an aching fragility by the director’s Brazilian-born wife, Vera). His schoolteacher lover, Nicole (a key early role for the great Simone Signoret), doesn’t have much use for him, either, so bound by contempt they decide to do him in. The plan, which involves the institution’s brackish pool, goes swimmingly–but, in accordance with the film’s trailer and closing credits, which ask audiences not to reveal the final twist, I’ll do better and not spoil the middle ones, either. Suffice it to say that we’re tightly bound to the two women throughout.
I Saw the Devil gets right in your face with the cinema of complicity. The director, Kim Ji-woon, has made some of the top Korean films in recent years, notably the chilling A Tale of Two Sisters (badly remade here as The Uninvited) and the jaunty “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Here he takes on the revenge saga, a staple of the nation’s celluloid renaissance, and casts Choi Min-sik, the star of the best-known example, 2003’s Oldboy, as a merciless serial killer. Kyung-chul murders the daughter of a retired police chief, whose secret agent fiance, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun, a regular in Kim’s movies), vows to catch him. This he does–but rather than apprehend him, or kill him outright, the cop stuffs a sensor down the killer’s throat and tracks him via GPS, stepping in to administer ferocious beatings when the fiend is about to transgress. As Soo-hyun tries to figure out how best to punish a villain who admits to neither pain nor fear we’re drawn into Kyung-chul’s weird termite existence (which includes an extended visit to his cannibal friend and his kitchen facilities) and the detective’s mental and spiritual anguish at sinking to his level. At 141 minutes Soo-hyun has a lot of time to take care of the taunting Kyung-chul, though not forever; there is, let’s say, a time element regarding that sensor, and a movie that takes its sweet time detailing every atrocity kicks into high gear when the killer finds a way out of their aversion therapy.
Audio/Video: Presented in the full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio and encoded in 1080p/AVC Diabolique (also available on DVD) improves upon a prior Criterion release in 1999; the softness and grayness of the black-and-white image are better clarified this time around, and the shadows that descend with the film’s turn to outright horror in the third act are more forceful. Lacking similar depth, but serviceable, is the film’s French LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack, with optional English subtitles.
I Saw the Devil (also on DVD) looks superb–maybe too good, as the lesser of the film’s plentiful makeup effects are a little exposed in this 1080p/AVC presentation (OAR 1.85:1). Chances are you’ll be ducking under the couch too much to notice, which I think is a drawback to these escalatingly violent films; the blood and viscera and excretions tend to overwhelm the storylines, which are like the bastard kids of the adults-only “Category III” roughies that proliferated 20 years ago in Hong Kong cross-bred with our own “torture porn” flicks. There’s a more pensive side to the movie’s duality theme if you can dig through the severed limbs. In any event skip the hollow English dub and go straight to the no-holds-barred Korean-language track, in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1., with optional English subtitles.
Special Features: About 25 minutes worth of sequences and moments cut from the Korean version of I Saw the Devil have been dropped into the Deleted Scenes section of the Blu-ray/DVD, which presents Kim’s preferred international cut of the film. (If you really want to see Kyung-chul, played with relish by Choi, having sex with the cannibal friend’s out-of-it wife go for it.) A 27-minute making of that begins with the choreography of the fight scenes offers a decent grounding in the film.
Diabolique is heartier, with Kim Newman, author of the newly revised and essential Nightmare Movies, on hand to give it its proper context in the genre. Serge Bromberg, co-director of the superb documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (which covers the director’s unraveling during the making of his final, aborted film), introduces the movie (with spoilers, so watch it afterwards) and discusses Clouzot’s detailed, dictatorial approach–if the characters were eating rotten fish in a scene the actors were given rotten fish to eat in the scene, and so on. French film scholar Kelley Conway comments offers commentary on three scenes, notably the ending, where an almost suffocating realism gives way to the jagged lighting of Expressionism (and a strange and somehow lovely coda). Terrence Rafferty’s booklet essay attempts to rescue the film, and Clouzot’s reputation, from the scornful nouvelle vague of Godard and Truffaut that arose later in the 50s to challenge these allegedly fusty “Tradition of Quality” movies. As the trailer included on the disc shows, however, there was nothing old hat about Diabolique (and Truffaut’s stabs at thrillers, like The Bride Wore Black (1968), are too preoccupied to really work on the gut level.) And Criterion’s packaging is good fun, if a little spoiler-heavy.
Bottom Line: Times have changed: In 1955 Diabolique played drive-ins and grossed $1 million in the U.S., while I Saw the Devil made do with a few theatrical playdates and VOD scheduling in winter. Blu-ray gives both a bloody good platform.