So, this review is going to be a bit of a challenge to write. Because right at the end, right before going into the closing credits, a title card begs the audience not to reveal any spoilers; and it really is better if I say nothing about either of the M.-Night-Shyamalan level twists that both happen within about ten seconds of each other. I didn’t see either coming – I had some suspicions something was going wrong, but was surprised – twice over – and enjoyed the surprise.
So this makes the writing of a review a little tricky. What do I say? What do I hide?…
I can say that the ending made up for a beginning that initially left me cold. Our story is set in a Paris suburb, where Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a wealthy woman who’s using her money to operate private boarding school in a drafty mansion. Her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the principal and manager – and a bit of a jerk; he’s a cheapskate who skimps on the food for the kids’ meals, a cruel disciplinarian quick to punish the kids and the teachers, and he recently ended an affair he was openly having with one of the other teachers, Mlle. Nicole (Simone Signoret). Christina would leave him, except she’s always wanted to own a school, and she’s also got a weak heart and doesn’t want to be left alone. But she’s formed an unlikely friendship with Nicole – both of them bonding in what a jerk Michel was – and so she agrees to a plan Nicole comes up with one day to kill Michel and stage it as an accident.
Now, the film is clearly presenting Michel as cruel – almost to the point of parody (we first meet Michel as he returns from a grocery run, and director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Vera’s husband) takes pains to show Michel running over a child’s paper boat in a puddle as he drives), and he’s got a pattern of beating both Christina and Nicole. But everyone comes across as pretty unpleasant at first; the groundskeeper is lazy, Nicole is bitter and sarcastic, Christina is kind of a wimp, the other teachers are either snooty and priggish or scatterbrained. The kids even come across as jerks, pulling pranks on each other or starting food fights. Even the one boy who briefly does something nice for Christina seems more like a suck-up than a genuinely good kid. In short, the first ten minutes of the film introduced me to a bunch of jerks, and even though the worst person of all was facing some justly-deserved punishment, I still cringed at the thought of spending more time with any of them.
But watching the murder plot, and the aftermath, ended up sucking me in. Nicole’s plan is a complicated one, but sound, and the conscientious Christina nearly loses her nerve once or twice; but the pair appear to succeed and get off scott-free. But then the body disappears. And then several students report seeing the “missing” Michel lurking about the school. And then his ghostly face turns up in a class photo. And then Christina hears footsteps in his office at night. And then…
And then that’s where I stop.
Roommate Russ and I discussed how this film seemed like it’d have fit well in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse; and interestingly enough, Hitchcock was one of the directors who requested the film rights after reading the French crime novel that inspired it. But Clouzot beat him to it – legend has it that Clouzot stayed up late one night finishing the novel all in one sitting, and then called the publisher first thing the following morning. There are some shots throughout the murder scene that are Hitchcockian nevertheless, particularly involving a bottle of Scotch that’s been…altered. And yet, there were even more chances Clouzot could have set up a shot in a way that would have upped the tension more and sooner. However, one of Clouzot’s intents with the film was to showcase his wife Vera, so his attentions were a bit distracted. But no matter – the second half of the film really got under my skin, with a final act that reminded me not only of Hitchcock and of Shyamalan, but also had some bits straight out of Kubrik’s Shining.