Dark deeds, diabolical liberties

If you suffer from mild insomnia, chances are you may have seen at least the beginning of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques in one of its fairly frequent late-night television screenings. If you stayed with it, chances are it left you suffering from serious insomnia. It's that vindictive little horror story about the wife and the mistress of a tyrannical, cheese-paring headmaster who club together to murder the man they share - by drowning him in the bathtub, a grisly business - then begin to go to pieces after the corpse vanishes and a nosy old detective shows up to sniff around the place. There's a twist ending which doesn't bear much logical scrutiny, and doesn't need to, because by the time it rolls around Clouzot has saturated the whole affair with a mood of such stagnant ill-will that you feel as if you need a good soaking in warm water but somehow can't quite face the bathroom.

Well, once again, Karl Marx's prophetic observation about Hollywood remakes has been vindicated: the first time was tragedy, the second is farce. Diabolique (18) (a franker title would have been Diabolical, as in the Carry On locution "diabolical liberty") sedulously follows the plot of Clouzot's film and even quite a few of its incidental details right up until the twist - when it takes a leaf out of the American remake of The Vanishing and gets really silly. But it's so archly done that all the essential preposterousness Clouzot manages to conjure out of sight is laid cruelly bare. (One telling stylistic distinction: Clouzot tends to use little or no soundtrack music for his nasty bits; Diabolique's score deafens.) It doesn't grip for a minute, let alone appal, but it's an outstanding candidate for cult status as the best unintentional comedy of the year.

Keep those inverted commas firmly at the edge of your peripheral vision and every moment that Sharon Stone is on the screen becomes raw enjoyment. She takes the role of the mistress, originally played by another SS, Simone Signoret, and tears its throat out, wearing glossy lipstick you could see at 300 yards in a pea-souper and, for the benefit of the hard of thinking who may not have spotted that she's meant to be a heartless predator, a fetching range of leopard-skin prints. Women and men alike walked out of the press screening obsessing about her feral wardrobe, and the manifest impossibility of funding it on a teacher's salary.

Though she can probably play Slime Queen roles like this in her sleep, Stone is such a blessedly brassy, sardonic presence that she burns Isabelle Adjani off the screen - not so hard, since the role of the wife doesn't require much more of Adjani than moping neurasthenically and bugging her eyes in terror every 10 minutes - and, more damagingly for what remains of Diabolique's verisimilitude, seems like the last woman in the world who'd want to squander her assets on the head, Chazz Palminteri. The only point at which one could argue that Jeremiah Chechik's remake has had a good idea of its own is the decision to change the detective's sex and cast Kathy Bates in the part, as a tough-talking mastectomised ex- smoker who says her idea of a wild sexual fantasy is a man who'll take off his socks while making love. (Some women are just born fussy.) Unless your appetite for kitsch is immoderate, though, you'd be better off saving your money until your local rep screens Les Diaboliques, or better and bleaker still, Le Corbeau, Clouzot's exquisitely disillusioned tale of poison pen letters and banal fascism.

A lighter side of Chazz Palminteri is on display in Mulholland Falls (18), a quite handsomely staged 1950s cop show about blackmail and skulduggery. Palminteri is one of the more comical sidekicks to Max Hoover (Nick Nolte), an unscrupulous, adulterous but, you know, basically sound LAPD man with a big hat. The first Hollywood picture from Lee Tamahori of Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls wants to be Chinatown so badly that you keep waiting for Nolte to have his nose slit. It doesn't happen, and the atomic- age conspiracy he uncovers proves signally short on complexity, resonance or interest of almost any kind. The worst crime on offer is the senseless waste of a strong cast.

The presidents to which Dead Presidents (18) refers are the portraits on American banknotes: specifically, the used currency sent for burning by the US Treasury which our protagonist Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and some of his fellow black Vietnam vets set out to steal in the film's third-act climax. Produced and directed by the Hughes Brothers, who weren't so much as born in 1968 when the film begins, it spits and fizzes with righteous indignation, and its story of how a naive young man goes from school to the Marines to unemployment to crime has the sickened inevitability of the grimmest naturalist novel. Though a slightly more varied board of humane values is suggested than in their first feature, Menace II Society, the Brothers still seem more than half in love with bloody death: the pain of the spectacle outweighs any polemical gain.

Hollow Reed (15) boasts the British debut of one of the most fascinating actors cast up by the American independent sector, Hal Hartley's regular lead Martin Donovan - a man whose severe features usually seem to hold in such a pressure of rage and distaste for humankind that you dread they might explode, Scanners-fashion. In Angela Pope's film from a script by Paula Milne, Donovan plays a gay GP who suspects, rightly, that his son is being beaten by the new lover of his former wife (Joely Richardson). It's honourable work, and the acting is fine - no problems with Donovan's generic English accent - but a bit dramatically loaded, as if, for instance, mainstream audiences wouldn't pull for a gay couple who were less than saintly.

It takes hard neck to rollick in these pinched and cynical times, but Edouard Molinaro's Beaumarchais (15) rollicks with panache, and never more so than in a gloriously paced bit of mass action in which the hero settles a trial, defends the rights of the peasantry, fights an amorous duel and wins the heart of a maiden, all in the space of about two minutes flat. Wittily played by Fabrice Luchini, who stole Depardieu's show as the saturnine lawyer in Le Colonel Chabert, this Beaumarchais is not just the author of the Figaro plays but also a swashbuckler, secret agent, architect of both American and French revolutions and babe magnet. Doubtful history, outstanding light entertainment.

In the mop-up zone: Margarethe von Trotta's The Promise (15) lumbers through the three decades from 1961 to 1989 during which the Berlin Wall divided Germans, including two lifelong lovers, Konrad in the East and Sophie in the West. It feels like posh soap opera, and doesn't show or imagine anything about such a relationship that you couldn't have imagined perfectly well for yourself. Wong Kar-Wai's sort-of-thriller Fallen Angels (15), a demented symphony in smeared neon shot by the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is a virtually unclassifiable mixture of comedy, yearning romance, social realism and ultra-violence. People I respect have compared sitting through it to watching Alphaville or Mean Streets for the first time. I'm less entranced, though if there were awards for sheer idiosyncrasy, Wong Kar-Wai ought to be a front runner.

Finally, Message to Love (15) is Murray Lerner's belated documentary about the 1970 Isle of Wight festival: peace, love, music, slack-jawed idiocy and dim-bulb rhetoric. The high points are one or two of the performances - Jimi Hendrix deserves the bays - and the choleric retired military man who saw the talons of Black Power and international communism behind this sheepish horde of pale-faced adolescents. On the whole, it made me glad I spent that particular weekend pony trekking.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.