Friday, February 10, 2012

Polka Dots & Sunglasses: The Costume Design of Les Diabolique

With so many voices out there on the internet - the last thing we need is another one writing the same ol' retrospective review of the same ol' film that everyone already knows is a classic - I thought it might be interesting to begin looking at specific elements of some of the films I watch, both old and new. I hope it inspires me to write more about some of the great films I see, and inspires you dear readers to try and admire the unexpected.

This entry contains spoilers, granted for a film from 1955, but I successfully avoided any so maybe you should too if you've never seen Les Diaboliques! I can't recall any other films that actively end with text telling the viewer to be silent about what they just saw, that's how blind you should go into this film.

"Vintage". It's a word that gets thrown about a lot today in relation to fashion. Whether it actually is vintage, or just has the same musky, old-timey appeal of something that is, it's become an adjective to describe items of clothes that one would associate with another time and place. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 noir horror, Les Diaboliques, isn't a period film at all - or, at least, I don't think it was at the time - but I couldn't help but think of this phrase, "vintage", whilst ogling the delicious costumes that appear throughout. Despite featuring no credited costume designer, the duds of Les Diabolique are a masterclass of (at the time) contemporary costume design, as outfits of various shapes, colours and designs help inform the characters that wear them. It was just one of many beautiful aspects to this French classic that impressed me upon watching Clouzot's film for the first time last evening.

A black and white checkered dress - with fan - worn by Véra Clouzot in Les Diabolique

The first costume I couldn't take my eyes off was the gorgeous checkered dress that Véra Clouzot wears, shown above. Almost like houndstooth in pattern, it's a stunning sundress that I can easily see being worn today with, perhaps, just a little less formal structure.The fan may be a bit much, but this outfit is just the beginning a trend for the meek Mme Delassalle whose wardrobe consists entirely of outfits that pair black with white. Utilising the good ol' concept of white representing good and pureness, whereas black represents evil and "the devil" (the translation of the title, Les Diaboliques), the costuming of Ms Clouzot is clearly a way of symbolising her character's dangerous dalliance between the two. Later on in the film she wears loose-fitting white shirt with deep v-neck and a long black dress, and then later a white dress shirt and skirt with black shall. Always conservative - Mme Delassalle is a school teacher after all - with her hair braided and tied at the back, she never full embraces the colour of white for her entire outfit until the climactic scenes in the school hallways once she has confessed to her crimes. It's a simple motif, and occasionally very literal - hello Star Wars - but given the very moral discussion of right and wrong, it's a motif that works.

A black and white polka dot dressing gown that even I want!

My favourite costume worn by Véra Clouzot is the black and white polka dot dressing gown warn at several occasions throughout the movie (I do love when a character rewears clothes, it gives a film such a sense of authenticity). Seen up above this paragraph, it's a simple piece of costume that is not only gorgeous to look at, but character defining as well. It's unassuming nature - no glimpse of sex appeal there - perfectly encapsulates the mademoiselle's attitude as a somewhat repressed woman who isn't interested in dressing for anybody other than herself. I admit that even I want a black and white polka dot dressing gown now, preferally one made of material that looks as smoothly elegant as the one shown here. The gloss and the reflection of light make me suspect it's made of a very luxurious fabric and, good grief, wouldn't we all want that on us morning and night?

Simone Signoret, as Clouzot's partner in crime, also gets the black = evil, white = good treatment, except she doesn't come out looking quite so rosy (er, mixing up my colour metaphors there, aren't I?) Pictured here to the left, she is always seen wearing outfits of black, charcoal and dark grey. Yes, I do realise I am discussing colours that are obviously in the spectrum of "black and white" and that the cinematography couldn't determine whether she's wearing crimson or purple or black or gold, but it's obvious to tell she has been deliberately given darker hues to Clouzet's Mme Delassalle because she is ultimately the far guiltier party of the two. Usually dressed in long body-hugging dresses that provide a sex appeal that her friend never does, Signoret's Nicole Horner is frequently the more mysterious of the two and given far less opportunities to show remorse through her costumes. She's a vixen and proud of it. I simply adore the sunglasses she wears in the early scenes at the school that make for effortless cool alongside her near bleach blond hair and dangling cigarette. It's a look I've seen replicated many times in recent years, although one has to suspect that those recreating this look - regular everyday women and celebrities alike - know what era they're basing their looks on.

"So Frenchy, so chic!" goes the saying - although does anybody make reference these days to a "Prince of Wales suit"? I doubt that - and Les Diaboloque proves that. Of the film that they inhabit? Divine. A tingly fright factory that garners scares out of our own imaginations, it's final scenes made my entire body freeze. Without a single peep of a musical score to telegraph the audience's fears and emotions (apart from the opening credits, that is - did Phantom of the Opera ruin organ music for everyone?) it obviously works best if you don't know the twists to come (so I hope you paid heed to that spoiler warning up top if you intended to watch it), but it's such a finely crafted piece of work that repeat viewings would hold such a delicious richness to them. Something the patently ridiculous-looking remake surely can't achieve. Unless Kathy Bates punching someone in the face is your idea of fine craftmanship... actually, maybe it is worth a look after all.


JA said...

Wonderful piece, Glenn! I love this idea as a way to spice up the way you write about movies. Diabolique is amazing, and I never really gave the costumes a whole lot of thought before.

Although I did give thought to the costumes in the remake, which I haven't seen in ages but I remember LOVING for its sheer over-the-top camp awfulness, specifically Sharon Stone's insane performance and her hysterically inappropriate for a school-teacher vamp clothes. A

nd now that you've got me talking about it I need to see the remake right fucking away. If it's as wonderfully ridiculous as I remember it being it would make for a great "Cinema of the Absurd" post.

Jake said...

Great post. This film scared me to bits when I was a teenager and I've never found the nerve to revisit it. When I do I'll watch it differently as a result of what you've written here.