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Death Warmed Over

When Exorcist director William Friedkin remade Henri-Georges Clouzot's great existential thriller The Wages of Fear in 1977, he dedicated Sorcerer to Clouzot, as a respectful student might. By contrast, the perpetrators of a new version of Diabolique, which is the late M. Clouzot's most famous film, don't even bother acknowledging "the French Hitchcock" in the screen credits or the press notes.

Does it come as a surprise, then, that Sorcerer was an exciting, highly inventive update of a suspense masterpiece and that the nouveau Diabolique looks like it was made not by Henri-Georges Clouzot but by Inspector Clouseau?

As devotees of the 1955 original--millions of them--can tell you, the dark plot concerns an enslaved wife and a tormented mistress who conspire to murder the brute who's been making both their lives miserable behind closed doors at a seedy school for boys. Once the deed is done, though, the villain haunts the killers' lives: He may not be dead at all, and twist builds on cunning twist en route to a hair-raising climax. If you've never seen Clouzot's justly famous body-in-the-bathtub sequence, allez vite to your local video outlet: It's every bit the equal of Janet Leigh's shower at the Bates Motel.

That was then, this is now. Director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny and Joon) and screenwriter Don Roos (Single White Female) can put you in a cold sweat here and there with their own bathroom etiquette, but for the most part they use their reacquaintance with a classic to tack on an unconvincing array of Nineties gewgaws--all of them in service to a movie star who's never been much of an actress, Sharon Stone.

In its makers' own words, Diabolique is now a "feminist thriller," which wouldn't be a bad idea at all if the film didn't reproduce virtually every cliche we've seen in Hollywood's previous 38 "feminist thrillers"--including a savvy woman detective (Kathy Bates); a male chauvinist murder target (star-of-the-week Chazz Palminteri) so despicable that you want to knock him off yourself; enough icy cunning to pour Scotch over; and just the right touch of lesbian lust.

This last, which links the stone-faced Stone (in Simone Signoret's old role as the mistress) and the doe-eyed French star Isabelle Adjani (as the guilt-ridden wife), is bound to be the movie's main selling point--"the good part," as teenagers reading off-color novels under the covers like to say. The fact that the women's attraction for each other makes almost no dramatic or emotional sense seems to have escaped writer Roos and director Chechik, whose past lives as a still photographer for Italian Vogue and a maker of Diet Coke commercials are everywhere evident: The entire film looks like a fashion layout for its two female stars (especially for Stone's clingy pedal-pushers), and it feels like a two-hour TV spot for packaged sexuality--a video version of Playboy.

In fact, the new Diabolique is less diabolical than desperate, and it doesn't even measure up to some other recent remakes--the tepid Kiss of Death, say, or the engaging Sabrina. For one thing, it asks the audience to believe that Nicole Horner, another in a long line of Stone's tough cookies with larceny on their minds, actually spends her afternoons teaching algebra to fourteen-year-olds. Sure, and Heinrich Himmler's the hall monitor. The film also makes Adjani--the queen of doomed love in two decades' worth of movies, from The Story of Adele H. to Camille Claudel--out to be an ex-nun who's at first tortured by the awful mortal sin she's committed, then liberated by the unexpected rush she gets out of it. In fact, this Diabolique, filmed at an old boys' school near--where else?--Pittsburgh, is crammed full of Catholic statuary and crucifixes, but the filmmakers never come close to giving this stuff any real meaning: It's simply there.

So is Palminteri, the Bronx-born playwright who's suddenly the hottest thing in movies despite his rather plodding acting style and seen-one-role, seen-'em-all sameness. When wife Mia and mistress Nicole stuffed the cruel headmaster Guy Baran into the tub, I was glad for two reasons: The character is an unmitigated creep (what do these women see in him?), and there was a chance that Palminteri might not get another line of dialogue.

Unfortunately, most of us have seen the Clouzot classic thirty or forty times and know the bad guy will be back--this time with Bates's very Nineties cop in pursuit of all three sides of the triangle.

While we wait, Chechik lays on some of Mia Baran's impenetrable religious fantasies and gives the chain-smoking, calculating Nicole the movie's best line. "It isn't like you burned the toast, Mia. You killed your husband. But don't worry: You'll feel better when the body surfaces."

Moviegoers will probably feel better when Diabolique 1955 resurfaces.

Diabolique.
Screenplay by Don Roos. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. With Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, Chazz Palminteri and Kathy Bates.

 
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