DIABOLIQUE (1996) *
Recently, in a benevolent mood I wrote that Hollywood remakes are generally worse than the originals, with some exceptions. "Diabolique" reminds me that I was too kind, that the enormous majority of remakes are bad. And they can stink when you know the orginal, like the classic thriller-suspenser by Henri-Georges Clouzot, "Les Diaboliques" of 1955.
The plot. A boarding school for boys somewhere in the mountains of Pennsylvania, within easy driving distance to Pittsburgh. The establishment was inherited by Mia (Adjani) who suffers from 1) a weak heart and 2) lousy husband Guy (Palminteri). He is the headmaster, rules the roost, abuses Mia, has as a mistress Nicole (Stone), whom he regularly beats up.
The two women are teachers and friends. The school is a manor that ought to be shabby and run down, but that's not made clear. Shabby, because Guy is also an s.o.b. who skimps on food, feeds the kids and the staff disgusting things. He doesn't even have the swimming pool cleaned. ("Dirty pool" applies both literally and figuratively to the plot). The women, fully aware of each one's relations and relationship with Guy, decide to kill him.
End of plot so far as this review is concerned. For two reasons. First, because what little you might get from the movie depends entirely on the twists and gimmicks. Second, to honor the memory of Mr. Clouzot, his wishes must be followed. When his film was shown there was a final "don't divulge the end" plea to the audience.
That's probably where Alfred Hitchcock got the idea of doing something like this for his "Psycho." Hitchcock loved "Les Diaboliques" and its source book. Unable to get permission to remake it, he used another novel ("From Among the Dead," which some critics wrongly translate as "Between Deaths"), by the same writers, and made "Vertigo," a gem with an improbable plot.
The new version follows its model in bizarre ways. Many parts are copied scene-for-scene, others not. Even when copied, those sections always manage to do something stupid or cheap. Consistent with Hollywoodmania for sex and violence, the remake heavily insists on both, while the original was subtle on sex and had more shocks, suspense and surprises than violence. Like Hitchcock.
In the French film, the mistress was the excellent, already famous Simone Signoret; the wife was the unknown Vera Clouzot, then the director's wife. Signoret had presence and nuances. Clouzot was a born victim totally subjugated by both Signoret and Paul Meurisse, the husband.
Here, Sharon Stone mercilessly overdoes her hardness and cynical repartees, so much that she telegraphs plot developments. She's so hard that SS could easily play an SS guard.
Tarted up with heavy makeup, tight clothes (selected by herself) in terrible taste, with tops that never miss a chance to show her breasts, she's like a floozy. In the movie's 115 minutes she does not once crack smile. How mechanical.
Adjani, at the start, has a full nudity scene. Her body is a beautiful body, not just for a 40-year old but for any woman. But it is used only as a cheap, gratuitous come-on. She has minimal expressions and in general is a ninny.
As in the French film, Nicole is the strong one of the pair, Mia by far the weaker. But she lacks the wispiness, the convincing frailty and ill health, the helplessness, the pathetic religiosity of Vera Clouzot.
The school's staff is very small. Spalding Gray and the fine Alan Garfield have microscopic, irrelevant parts, unlike those of their atmosphere-enhancing French counterparts. The latter help set the mood for the women's fatal decision. The remake makes a flat mess even of the model's superior dining room scene, where rotten fish was served.
Nobody is more than skin-deep in version 2. While we don't need full-fledged background records or psychological analyses, all characters are paper thin. Thrown in are two young men who are doing a promotional video for the school. It's plain padding. Thrown in too is an overt lesbian relationship instead of the original's hints.
Worse yet, Adjani has a scene where, after being disgustingly insulted by Palminteri, she revels in a kiss, with absolutely illogical and uncharacteristic passion. Cut to vigorous sex ... but wait, this is between Stone and Palmenteri!
The French police inspector was played by talented veteran Charles Vanel, who, I am told, was the model for Lieutenant Columbo. Vanel, like Signoret, had a weighty presence. Here, to feminize the movie, he's replaced by private investigator Cathy Bates. Her presence is depressing, her sleuthing improbable.
Bates is addressed as "detective," as in " What do you think, detective?" I've never heard this turn of speech before. Her character's name is Shirley. There's another Shirley in the cast, the likable actress Shirley Knight, in another depressing role. The odd thing is that she is not even mentioned in the blurbs given to the press. Sic transit...
Now to Mr. Palminteri and all that Chazz. Where the original's Meurisse was a diabolical, malevolent snake, Palminteri is just a coarse, crass, vulgar brute. It's like replacing a sports car with a dumpster.
The cardinal sin is the doctoring up the French film's climax, one of the cleverest, most unexpected and startling in the history of movie thrillers. Be prepared for more cheap and dumb turns, false twists, Grand Guignol and additional crassness.
The camera-work is OK though overdone and showy. Hitchcock would never have tolerated it. Strange too are the close-ups of Adjani that often elongate her face, like an El Greco painting or a CinemaScope film projected through a regular lens. Beats me.
The film is soporific. Instead of being an edge-of-the seat affair, it is a bottom-of-the-seat proposition. The torpor is intercut by the music's sudden bursts of energy, drumbeats and all, with imitations of Hitchcock scores by the great Bernard Herrmann.
Get the French film or most any Hitchcock movie.