When you're watching a remake of a classic thriller, maybe it's better not to have seen the original. You don't know the plot, and you can't compare, so you aren't biased. At least, that's what I'd like to think, since (confession time) I haven't seen "Les Diaboliques," aka "Diabolique," the highly regarded 1955 French film.
Even without suffering from comparison, the new version starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani doesn't thrill as it should. Despite its sleek styling, it simmers without ever coming to a boil.
Stone plays Nicole, a hard-as-nails math teacher at a Pennsylvania private school who's having an affair with the nasty head master (Chazz Palminteri) with the full knowledge of his wife, Mia (Adjani), a timid former nun with a weak heart. The women are friends, bound by their simultaneous attraction to the sadistic man in their lives.
Fed up, they decide to murder him together, a death by water that becomes a peculiar baptism for them both. Their plan is graphically carried out; what follows, when evidence and artifacts of the crime pop up in all the wrong places, is what makes the story intriguing. Is someone "playing games" with them, as Nicole suggests? Is hubby still kicking? Will a rogue detective with one breast, played amusingly by Kathy Bates, uncover the truth, whatever it is?
Despite composer Randy Edelman's uneasy score and a steady diet of clues, the film's intrigue doesn't build; it hums along deliberately, more atmosphere than suspense. Stone and Adjani run in circles until the movie's climax, when intense action takes place in a spasm of violence.
The weakest link in the ambitious story is the women's odd relationship. Tough Nicole's vulnerabilities come through, but the strength that drove meek Mia to help with the murder isn't readily apparent.
The lesbian overtones of their friendship seem superficial (perhaps Hollywoodized, i.e., timid) and not quite credible. And although they banter about Mia's faith and Nicole's atheism, their philosophical barbs don't resonate as they should, in light of their crime.
Meanwhile, Bates' detective, a latecomer to the proceedings, is a character in search of a point.
At least the performances keep the movie interesting. Stone, made up like a '40s screen goddess, spits out cruel, clever
remarks with perfect attitude even as her character's icy heart begins to melt, while lovely Adjani, who gapes wide-eyed in fear a bit too much (she's more scared than we are), imbues her angelic role with ambivalence. Palminteri (Stone's suggestion for the role) exudes the raw, ugly power needed to make his attraction and repulsion believable.
Alas, all these elements aren't diabolical enough. As a showcase of style and mood, "Diabolique" excels. As a thriller, it's wanting.
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Starring Sharon Stone and isabelle Adjani
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (nudity, profanity, sexual situations, violence)
Sun score: * * 1/2
Pub Date: 3/22/96