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Demons Light

Profiles in Crime: Sharon Stone (left) and Isabelle Adjani contemplate their next deadly move in "Diabolique."

An unneeded remake of 'Diabolique' tries to stay faithful to the original but sinks in the end

By Allen Barra

Henri-Georges Clouzot is often referred to by film historians as the "French Hitchcock," but at his bleakest, as in his international hits Wages of Fear and Diabolique, Clouzot demonstrated a sensibility far more cynical than anything Hitchcock ever conceived. In particular, Diabolique, a suspense thriller set in a provincial French boarding school, seems, in the words of at least one prominent critic, "the product of a pathological mind." What strikes the first-time viewer of Diabolique is how thin a plot can produce such an atmosphere of evil--and, in fact, it can't. It's the feverish intensity of Clouzot's vision that squeezes horror from what is in the final analysis a fairly creaky melodramatic plot.

Jeremiah Chechik, whose only previous feature credit as a director is the innocuous Benny & Joon, is a strange choice to direct the third version of Diabolique. (There was a surprisingly effective 1974 TV movie starring Tuesday Weld and Joan Hackett and directed by future hack John Badham.) The story involves a demented triangle: the sadistic headmaster of the private school (played by Paul Meurisse in the original) is poisoned by his mistress and his wife, acting in concert (Simone Signoret and Clouzot's wife, Vera, acted the roles in his film). His body is dumped in a fetid swimming pool, but it's missing when the pool is drained. You can outguess the plot, but you can't outguess Clouzot's perversity, which is what's missing in this paint-by-numbers faithful (except for the last 20-odd minutes) adaptation.

Chechik has some fine actors to work with: Isabelle Adjani plays the wife; Sharon Stone (of course) is the mistress; and Chazz Palminteri, the husband/headmaster. But Chechik seems to have no idea of how to use them, aside from having Adjani open the film with a completely gratuitous nude scene or turning the investigating police officer from a man to a woman (Kathy Bates). Chechik and screenwriter Dan Roos (Single White Female, Boys on the Side) have removed all the shadings from the roles; the suggestion of a lesbian attraction between the two women, for instance, is practically eliminated (or at least rendered so vague as to lose its tingle), and it's not replaced by anything. The roles are underwritten--there aren't enough nooks and crannies for the characters' motivations to go hide in. All the quirkiness is on the outside, in the production design and the wardrobe, which appear to be based on 1950s European fashion magazines: Stone's character teaches math in a black cocktail dress, and we're not given a clue as to what the movie wants us to make of that. Diabolique boasts strong performances, but it's still a glossed-over remake of a film that didn't need to be remade. They should have called it Diabolique Light.

Diabolique (R; 108 min.), directed by Jeremiah Chechik, written by Don Roos, photographed by Peter James and starring Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, Chazz Palminteri and Kathy Bates.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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