Devil in a lime blouse

DIABOLIQUE Jeremiah Chechik (18); Sharon Stone is dressed to kill. Isabelle Adjani is looking peaky. Ryan Gilbey is entertained. But a brighter remake isn't necessarily a better one
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The Independent Culture
It's not just the tunes market that Beelzebub has got sewn up. As Diabolique illustrates, the devil has got all the best threads too. Sharon Stone plays Nicole Horner, a maths teacher at an all-boys boarding school. Stop sniggering at the back, it's perfectly plausible. Perhaps this is one of those progressive schools you hear about, where they believe in striking deals with diligent pupils: in this case, rewarding the libido for what the mind has accomplished.

That's where Nicole comes in. She really knows her accessories from her elbow. And if her pass rate is as impressive as her wardrobe, then it's no wonder the parents look so proud on Open Day. A leopard-skin head scarf, a low-cut cherry-coloured mohair sweater, a black neckerchief from which a gold butterfly threatens to launch itself. This woman is dressed to kill. Literally.

The first time we see Nicole in a classroom, she is wearing a lime blouse beneath a padded blood-red jacket, upon which is mounted a brooch like a sheriff's badge, peppered with semi-precious stones that blink in the light. She has sunglasses on. Sunglasses! Indoors! See how easy it is to believe in her as the embodiment of some Algebra-Made-Sexy initiative?

Only she isn't. The sunglasses hide a bruise from her lover and superior, Guy (Chazz Palminteri). Most headmasters are concerned about the bullying problem in their school. Guy is the bullying problem in his school. When he's not showing Nicole the back of his hand, he's making an example of his wife, Mia (Isabelle Adjani), who has a weak heart which makes near- death experiences a part of life.

If you aren't familiar with the plot of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, the unsparing 1955 thriller on which Diabolique is based, then the words "weak heart" will have set off alarm bells in your head. Of course, if you have seen and admired Clouzot's original, then the alarm bells will have been howling ever since you first heard that it was going to be remade. In Hollywood. By the director of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

The remake is not, in itself, an objectionable concept. Admittedly, Hollywood has generally failed to demonstrate great sentience in its handling of foreign produce: Boudu Saved From Drowning and The Vanishing were imported goods transformed into homogeneous not-so-goods. The exceptions come when a director and writer use their source material as a springboard instead of an anchor. Consider The Magnificent Seven, Roxanne or Jim McBride's Breathless - not great movies, but each of them fast and free and full of possibility. Reinterpretations, not rehashes.

There's nothing to suggest that the makers of Diabolique even know why their version exists. I think they genuinely liked Clouzot's film, even though they may have gagged on the nihilism. They liked the torturous story: two wronged women joining together to wash a man right out of their life, only to be foiled by his unwillingness to do this death business properly. But they didn't understand how the picture functioned. Worried that they couldn't make it better, they made it brighter. Thunder and lightning were added, characterisation exaggerated.

Something was still missing. There wasn't a sympathetic character in the whole piece. That's why the screenwriter Don Roos created Shirley (Kathy Bates), a private detective so jolly that she cracks gags about her own mastectomy. She volunteers to find Guy when he disappears. She doesn't even invoice Mia - all she wants out of life is a man who makes love without his socks on. Aaah. It will be an icy audience that doesn't want to take Shirley home and give her a big cuddle. So that was what Les Diaboliques lacked, then. Someone for us to love.

The director Jeremiah Chechik works hard at defrosting this chilly tale. When Nicole and Mia are tugging Guy's drugged body down a hallway, the camera looks up at them from the soles of Guy's shoes, matching their graceless movements lurch for lurch. The shot is lifted from Prizzi's Honour, and our recognition of this creates a disruptive comic friction. Disruptive, that is, if the movie wanted to frighten you.

Roos lightens the mood further by trading openly in brazenly camp iconography and dialogue ("Don't worry," Nicole assures Mia after they've dumped Guy in the swimming pool, "you'll feel better once the body's surfaced"). And still you're left pining for the wickedness or glee of camp.

The final minutes of Les Diaboliques didn't so much pull the rug from under you as wrap you in that rug and roll you into the nearest pool; it closed with a climactic revelation which threw everything that had gone before into turmoil. But not here. The addition of a second twist negates the shock of the first, and reaffirms the authenticity of each of the film's preceding 100 minutes. The picture says: it's all right - you can believe your eyes; everything you saw was real. Where's the fun in that?

And where isn't the fun in Sharon Stone? "You are laughing at me, inside," Mia complains to Nicole. That's partly true of Stone too: she's the only one who makes the comedy feel nasty, not neutered. She stands out in this film of beige sets and beige intentions like a gash of lipstick on a tombstone. But Isabelle Adjani remains suspended in a permanent state of absent-minded surprise, the way people look when they haven't quite caught what you've said, but have chosen to feign a startled expression on the off-chance that it might prove appropriate.

n Adam Mars-Jones is on holiday. The film is on general release from tomorrow