A fiend, indeed

The remake of Diabolique is a stale, creaky version of the sick French classic

Diabolique, the black-and-white 1955 French classic from director Henri Georges Clouzot, seems like a murder thriller, but it's much closer in tone to a ghost story. The callous headmaster of a boys' school cheats on his prim wife Mia (played by the director's own wife, Vera Clouzot) with the more earthy Nicole (Simone Signoret), one of the school's teachers. Oddly, Mia and Nicole are best friends, united, in part, by mutual loathing of their husband-lover.

As Catholics, divorce is out of the question--that would be a sin--so instead, wife and mistress conjure up a beautifully sick plan. They drown the headmaster in a bathtub, set up an alibi for themselves, and stage it to look like he stumbled drunk into the school's swimming pool. When the body isn't discovered for many days and eventually disappears altogether, their tension--and the audience's--becomes almost unbearable.

Just thinking about the movie, remembering the unease and anxiety it so effortlessly produces, gets my heart pumping like a jackhammer. The second half of the film is literally crowded with scene after scene of exquisite dread--cold, ominous, weirdly quiet moments while Mia and Nicole track down every blind-alley lead to find their victim's body--and who stole it.

The decrepit boarding school practically becomes a character in itself; its shadowy corridors and wind-whistling dormers call to mind the spectral disquiet of the old estate in Henry James' Turn of the Screw, or the house in 1960's The Haunting. Since the putative antagonist, the husband, dies halfway through, there's not much action to speak of; most of the fun occurs in the minds of the murderers.

The 1955 Diabolique was an exercise in high-style horror, where footsteps are heard but not tracked down and vague silhouettes appear mysteriously in windows. If the current remake, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani as Nicole and Mia, respectively, had stuck more to the basics of the original--of both plot and mood--this could have been a great movie. With a budget to dwarf the French film, plus a few liberties of story that the more enlightened social mores of today will permit--the implied lesbian relationship between Mia and Nicole, for example--director Jeremiah Chechik and screenwriter Don Roos actually had the opportunity to improve upon the original.

Instead they've taken a humdinger of a tale and so Hollywoodized it that almost every key moment has been removed or corrupted beyond salvage. I would never argue that studios remaking classic films owe an absolute devotion to the source that inspired them, but when a movie undercuts what made the prototype worth revisiting, they're asking for trouble. Imagine a Casablanca in which Ilsa stays with Rick, or The Sound of Music in which the Von Trapps arm themselves with Tommy guns and single-handedly expel the Nazis from Austria, and you begin to see the extent to which Chechik has messed up Diabolique.

If the new Diabolique could stand on its own without reference to its predecessor--admittedly a comparatively obscure film, unfamiliar to most Americans--that could be reason enough to recommend it. Yet despite a good cast and some pungently sardonic dialogue, its structure and execution are creaky and dull. Don Roos' script seems allergic to the idea that the audience can be trusted to figure out the more labyrinthine twists of plot without a road map. The chaotic conclusion stretches on with such an interminable lack of focus that most of the terror gets dissipated among the myriad subplots and extraneous scenes that do not help build tension, but rather subvert it. (I can see why Roos might have thought that was necessary, considering how clumsily he scatters the red herrings in the film's first and second acts.)

Remarkably, the leading actors bring all their resources to bear in this woefully misguided fiasco; if they hadn't been trapped into performing so many ill-conceived scenes in so illogical a fashion, they might have surpassed the limitations of the script. Adjani, with big, pouty lips that look like she's glued bicycle tires to her mouth, projects a wan, vaguely somnambular persona well-suited to Mia. The role contains so many contradictions that she comes off as an infuriating nincompoop, but Adjani struggles to minimize them. It's something of a losing battle on her part; the troubling indecision that virtually paralyzes Mia is overstated, and she frequently switches back and forth between meekness and resolve without much motivation. But Adjani doesn't fail the movie as much as the movie fails her.

Sharon Stone is a slightly different story. In several films, I've been impressed by Stone's attitude as a consummate professional. When she appears on the Oscars, whether to present the live-action short award or list the winners of obscure technical categories that no one cares about, she does so with enthusiasm and style. She never stumbles over the names of nominees, or mocks her own screen image just to get a laugh, or more contemptibly, nudge the audience into thinking she's in it just for the money. She has the glamour and devotion to her craft of the old Hollywood starlets, and the brains--and abilities--of its more enduring icons. She knows that the work is what matters, and if the movie itself doesn't live up to expectations, you can't fault her for lack of trying.

Stone rushes headlong into the part of Nicole, and the force of her performance--her commitment to it even when it devolves into howlingly dumb melodrama--is admirable. Her casting is one of the few coups the film can boast. Stone has the boozy weariness of a modern Simone Signoret--who, not surprisingly, played the same role in the original. Even with her perfect makeup and flawlessly coifed hair, she's convincingly carnal as Nicole.

When directors portray stunningly beautiful actresses like Adjani and Stone, they often draw attention to their shapely figures while trying not to look obvious doing it. That's how Adjani is presented here--a nude scene in a bath is inserted for obligatory titillation more than plot necessity--but Stone luxuriates in Nicole's base sexuality: She's all tight skirts, braless jogging outfits, slinky black slips, and trashy halter tops. It's not cheesecake, really; it's part of the frontal-assault quality that distinguishes her character. She's methodical and cool, but also very intuitive. She knows how to de-glamorize herself with black-framed glasses and mousy cardigans, yet come across as wholly feminine. A strong understanding of character is important to the success of any movie, and while Diabolique doesn't know where to go with it--the movie is uncharacteristically directionless for a thriller--Stone gamely wrestles with giving it her all.

During one of the few promising moments in Diabolique, the scene of Mia slipping a mickey to her husband in glass after glass of whiskey is crosscut with Nicole and her neighbors watching a contentious drinking scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on TV. "I'll wait for this movie to come out in color," the neighbor declares. She made a mistake in thinking color alone improves a classic. As dusty as old movies may seem on the video shelf, there's a reason we call them classics: They can be fresher and livelier than stale, halfhearted remakes like this.

Diabolique. Warner Bros. Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, Kathy Bates, Chazz Palminteri. Written by Don Roos. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Now showing.

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