(Jeremiah Chechik, USA, 1996)


Diabolical would have been far too apt a title for this appalling American remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques (1955). It is one of those movies that seems out of whack from the word go, and only gets more unaligned as it hobbles on.

The basic plot closely follows the outline of Clouzot’s original, which was derived (as was Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958]) from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

Two teachers at a boys school, Nicole (Sharon Stone) and Mia (Isabelle Adjani) conspire to murder the tyrannical Guy (Chazz Palmenteri) who has brutally oppressed them both. After the Fatal Attraction-style opening act, the women mainly slink around, haunted by the banal consequences of their deed – as in another old classic, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).

The bizarre displacement of the original plot into a modern American setting makes everything laughably weightless and unreal. The Gothic, oppressively religious atmosphere of the school clashes with the presence of two filmmaker nerds who run about with video cameras. The supposed “sexual dependence” of the women on Guy is a long way from a sophisticated, contemporary grasp of gender politics.

As teachers, Stone and Adjani are pretty hard to take. But the overall stylisation of this film is a much more serious problem than any plausibility glitches at the plot level. Both stars pursue an anti-naturalistic style of performance: Adjani is like a faint-hearted pantomime queen from silent cinema, while Stone’s tarty, world-weary turn resembles something you would be likely to see in The Simpsons. Together for much of the story, they simply never seem to be inhabiting the same movie.

With the occasional cracking and rattling of a thunderstorm, and the overwrought orchestral score by Randy Edelman, Diabolique often threatens to turn into a campy romp – a twisted comedy of manners that Elaine May (Ishtar [1987]) could perhaps have salvaged. But, for every screwball actor in this ensemble (such as Spalding Gray) there is a weighty, imposing thespian who tries to play it straight (like Palmenteri or Kathy Bates) – and the two opposing sides just keep cancelling each other out.

There were hallucinatory moments during this film when I suddenly imagined myself watching an entire season of 1960s cult movies – nutty Italian horror fantasies by Mario Bava and lurid, misanthropic whodunits by Claude Chabrol. Diabolique‘s minestrone of flavours from thrillers old and new could have been scary fun, if only director Jeremiah Chechik had managed to successfully blend the ingredients.

MORE Chechik: The Avengers, Benny & Joon

© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search