Devils and mirrors

A pair of films study corruption and memory

Its credits appear over a scum-slathered swimming pool that'll become an improvised sepulcher, enveloping human remains when full, resembling an open grave when drained. Diabolique (1955) is an immaculately controlled study of corruption, hinging on the precarious alliance taken up by a wife and her husband's mistress upon agreeing that some people truly deserve to die. It's also among the cinema's most elegant employments of water as liquid abyss, something mysterious, unstable, untrustworthy and opaque.

Adapted from the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Diabolique brims with director Henri-Georges Clouzot's characteristic evocation of rampant dread and decay. Set in a provincial boys' school, it concerns the killing of sadistic headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) by his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director's wife) and his lover Nicole (Simone Signoret). The murder seems to go off without a hitch, until Michel's body, transported in a large basket (rhymes with casket) and deposited in the school's pool, fails to stay put. Failure to secure knowledge of Michel's corpse's whereabouts begins to grind away at the women's psyches, most notably Christina's, who suffers a heart condition and seems the more guilt-ridden.

Véra Clouzot (who herself suffered a heart problem, one that would end her life only five years later) gives a superb performance, imbuing Christina with a distinctive fragility that reveals itself only gradually, building up to a climax that encloses the actress in a Lewtonesque chamber of shadows and capitalizes on her arresting eyes and physical rigidity. Signoret is characteristically confident and intriguingly evasive. Clouzot's exacting approach to suspense, notably devoid of scoring, depended greatly on his capable leads to map out the incremental twists in the narrative.
Criterion's new DVD and blu-ray of Diabolique arrives with a gorgeous new transfer, cover art and special features, including an interview with historian Kim Newman concerning the film's enduring influence. Yet the filmmaker who most readily springs to mind whenever I watch Diabolique is one Newman fails to mention: Roman Polanski, whose morbid humour, commitment to high craftsmanship, fascination with perversion and penchant for nosy neighbours make him a very strong candidate for Clouzot's cinematic heir.

Andrei Tarkovsky's was very much a wet cinema, and Solaris (1972), his first foray into science fiction, also newly available on Criterion blu-ray, represents his densest and most haunting use of water. Inspired by Stanislaw Lem's novel, Solaris finds its baffled protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), on a space station hovering over the oceanic surface of the eponymous planet—a planet that seems to be delivering to its visitors resurrected figures from their past. Kris is visited by his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who suicided 10 years ago. Kris tries to get rid of her, but she just comes back. Like the lovers of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Kris and Hari appear to be condemned to (or blessed with) a closed circuit of eternal return, at least for as long as Kris stays within Solaris's inscrutable orbit. 

Solaris's first half-hour, set in and around Kris' family's dacha, imparts a vital sense of Tarkovsky's attachment to nature before he launches us into space. A shower passes through the countryside while the sun continues to shine, casting objects in a dewy glow. We get the impression that this is close enough to paradise—as close as we've any right to. Before Kris leaves on his mission he burns some old research notes and personal items. He's taking his memories and turning them into smoke and ash, yet these memories will soon be resurrected through the mysterious formative powers of Solaris. The two scientists left at the station, already familiar with the phenomenon that will afflict the newcomer, suggest that these needy ghosts, or “guests,” as they call them, have “something to do with conscience.” There's also the suggestion, made not by the scientists so much as by Tarkovsky himself, that whether Solaris is explored further or abandoned, some trace of those who came to it will remain, perhaps as tiny islands upon which memories replay themselves over and over again. 
“We don't need other worlds,” someone says “We need a mirror.” The enduring power of Tarkovsky's work can be located in its capacity to hold a mirror to the human soul and stir its murkiest existential questions. In the curious case of Solaris, that mirror covers the liquid surface of an entire world. 

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