Diabolically Yours presents a mystery no sooner than the fade up of the opening credits. Blustering jazz music plays over a car’s point of view as it barrels down a country road. A matter of course for the muscle-car-centric culture of the early 1960s, immortalized in Bullitt, this forward reveals itself to be the first, propulsive action that will provide momentum for the rest of the movie.
Dreamlike crossfades interrupt the driving sequence and bring into view a dimly lit hospital and a surgeon nervously operating. A bandaged man played by Alain Delon wakes up in a hospital bed. The opening images are revealed to be his last memories, as he’s informed that he has been in a coma after a near-fatal car accident. He’s also missing his memory. His name, supposedly, is Georges Campo, and the beautiful wife he does not recognize, Christiane (Senta Berger), brings him home to their secluded estate
After settling into his old, unfamiliar life, Georges Campo grows suspicious of his dour Chinese manservant, Kim (Peter Mosbacher), and his so-called doctor friend, Frédéric (Sergio Fantoni), whose sole purpose seems to placate and immobilize Georges, preventing him from leaving the house or finding anything out about himself. Christiane also vexes him with frigidity and a frustrating aversion to any form of marital intimacy. Strange voices plague Georges at night, voices that both attempt to brainwash him into docility and to drive him to suicide. Also at night, Georges awakes from disturbing nightmares wherein he’s a soldier in the Algerian War. Who is Georges Campo, he wonders, and am I really him? The ensuing reveals form a playfully devilish game of deception that plays with fears of lost identity.
A pattern of standout clues that only find context later on makes this film an ongoing puzzle with an intriguing touch of the surreal, although Julien Duvivier, director of some of France’s most celebrated genre films such as Panique and Pépé le Moko, leaves less of an impression, here, than he does in his landmark works. A strong premise allows the ensuing mystery to ride along a wave of intrigue, but nearly goes stale as Georges’s guardians repeatedly thwart his autonomy, and he cycles through periods of rebellion and complacency. Even more unpalatable is the angle of Georges’s business dealings in China and the subsequent inclusion of Kim, played by a German actor in makeup, pigeonholing a character with at least some dimension into the badly aged Asian Villain stereotype. The performances and eventual development of Kim’s character makes these flaws at least somewhat forgivable.
The suave and puckish Delon, demonstrating great range in contrast to his stone-silent Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, makes this comparatively underwhelming film in the director’s oeuvre nevertheless worthwhile. Complimenting Delon is Austrian ingénue Senta Berger, intoxicating and alluring as his reticently conniving wife. Visually, the film relies mostly on production design, Georges’s house being a multi-tiered labyrinth adorned in Asian artwork and surrounded by an idyllic countryside that is impossible to photograph badly. And one can’t forget the blithely experimental trinket of an opening sequence, an excuse to revisit the film on its own. All in all, Diabolically Yours shouldn’t act as an introduction to Duvivier’s filmography, but works perfectly fine as an idiosyncratic French thriller, incidental weaknesses aside. | Nic Champion
Diabolically Yours is being released on Blu-ray and includes a commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, along with trailers.