Fatal Femmes

Purists will doubtless cringe at the very suggestion that you might have fun with Diabolique, Jeremiah Chechik's Americanized remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1955 thriller about a cold-blooded crime of passion and a corpse that refuses to lie still. As it turns out, however, the new film has been made with just enough cleverness, and is acted with more than enough skill, for it to be appreciated purely -- or, perhaps more accurately, impurely -- on its own terms.

Of course, even if you've never seen the 1955 version, Chechik's remake may trigger a strong sense of djà vu, if only because of the many ways it has influenced other thrillers. There already have been two authorized made-for-TV remakes -- 1974's Reflections of Murder and 1993's House of Secrets -- and countless unauthorized rip-offs.

Even so, neither the passing of years nor the proliferation of imitations has diminished the power of Clouzot's original to unsettle and enthrall. Much like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, Diabolique is one of those rare classic works of cinema that can also be enjoyed as a hugely entertaining movie.

All of which means that Chechik and screenwriter Don Roos faced a singularly tough challenge: they had to rethink the original plot in contemporary terms without sacrificing anything that made the original film so effective. And while doing so, they had to come up with a few fresh plot twists, just to keep things interesting for those familiar with earlier versions of the story.

To a large degree, the remake sticks close to the original. The action has been shifted from 1955 France to 1996 Pennsylvania, but it's still pretty much the same drama of adultery, conspiracy and murder.

The setting is a second-rate boarding school for boys in a Pittsburgh suburb. Guy (Chazz Palminteri), the casually mean-spirited principal, clearly enjoys being cruel to his demure, convent-raised wife, Mia (Isabelle Adjani). But then again, he appears to take just as much pleasure in roughing up another teacher, Nicole (Sharon Stone), who happens to be his mistress. Other members of the faculty know all about Guy's flagrant infidelities. More to the point, they know that Mia knows about them, too. But they also know that she's too meek to do anything about her husband's physical and psychological brutality.

But Nicole isn't the type to turn the other cheek. And she's even less forgiving after Guy blackens her eye once too often. She encourages Mia to join her in plotting Guy's demise, claiming they'll be well rid of him. Mia reluctantly agrees.

Late one night in Nicole's apartment, Mia gives Guy a bottle of Scotch spiked with barbiturates, all the better to keep him quiet while the women drown him in the bathtub. They toss his body into a trunk, carry it back to the school and dump it into the school's swimming pool. After that, they figure, they simply have to wait until Guy floats to the surface and his death is ruled a terrible accident.

So why isn't the body there a few days later, when a caretaker drains the pool?

No one, not even the parents of the filmmakers, will ever mistake the new Diabolique for a classic. For one thing, the remake is much too obvious about things that were merely hinted at in the original. In Clouzot's version, there was a provocative suggestion of an erotic attraction between the convent-bred wife and the tough-talking mistress (a frankly slatternly Simone Signoret). In the remake, there's never any doubt that the women are lovers. Chechik does everything short of placing them between the sheets to illustrate the extent of their collaboration.

(It's probably worth noting that Don Roos also wrote the screenplay for Single White Female, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh pined for Bridget Fonda, and Boys on the Side, which had Whoopi Goldberg all misty-eyed for Mary-Louise Parker. Do I spot a pattern here?)

Chechik also works too hard at pumping up the tension with cheap tricks -- raging thunderstorms, an inconvenient auto mishap, a student's unexplained indication that he knows more than he's letting on. All this huffing and puffing doesn't raise the new film to the level of nightmarish intensity and palpable tension found in the moody black-and-white original, but on the other hand, the new Diabolique does generate a fair amount of suspense, particularly after the corpse vanishes. People start asking a lot of questions about Guy's extended absence, and the women must struggle to retain their composure. They must struggle even harder when, here and there, Guy, or somebody who knows what happened to Guy, appears to make his presence felt. As a troublesomely curious police detective who wanders into the plot -- a character played by a man in Clouzot's version -- Kathy Bates earns some hearty laughs with her caustic cynicism. She also plays a major part in the new film's ending, which actually dares to add a couple of extra twists to the original film's shocking payoff.

Adjani often has the ethereal glow and wounded delicacy of some early silent-movie heroine. This serves her character well, since Mia -- whose chronic heart condition figures prominently in the plot -- must seem physically and emotionally vulnerable for the audience to accept her drastic actions. Adjani emphasizes Mia's frailty in a brief, relatively unerotic nude scene. This, too, is Chechik's way of making sure that the audience gets every point he wants to hammer home.

On the other hand, Sharon Stone remains fully dressed throughout Diabolique. And while this may come as a disappointment to these who lusted after her in Basic Instinct, the fact remains that Stone has become a much more interesting actress since she decided to keep her legs crossed and clothes on. Indeed, when it comes to striking the right mix of bruised sensuality and take-charge resolve, she's every bit the equal of Simone Signoret in the same role.

As the man who brings out the worst in both women, Chazz Palminteri sneers confidently and glowers menacingly, conveying thick-lipped sensuality and unshakable confidence as he dishes out each new humiliation. By the time this manipulative sadist gets his, the audience is more than ready to root for the women who hold his head beneath the water. In Diabolique, a genuinely feminist thriller, there's no question that sisterhood is powerful. The only problem is, it may not be sufficiently lethal. -- Joe Leydon

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. With Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani and Chazz Palmainteri.

Rated R.
108 minutes.


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