11 April 2005 | JamesHitchcock
My Attention Was Glued to my Watch
Oscar Wilde was one of the great wits of his age, but he was allegedly not averse to appropriating other people's bons mots. It is said that after his friend and rival James Whistler had made a particularly apposite remark, Wilde sighed and said "I wish I had said that!". Whistler's reply was "You will, Oscar, you will". The American film industry has a similar attitude to other people's films to the one that Wilde had to other people's conversation. When the European- particularly the British or French- film industry comes up with a particularly admired film, Hollywood gives a collective sigh and says "We wish we had made that!" You will, Hollywood, you will!
Recent years have seen a glut of remakes of European films, but, admittedly, the results of this creative plagiarism are by no means always bad. The plot of "Sommersby" may have been blatantly lifted from "Le Retour de Martin Guerre", but it is still a good film in its own right. Moreover, I was one of those who thought that Luc Besson's "Nikita" did not lose much in translation when it was remade as the Bridget Fonda vehicle "The Assassin". Sometimes, however, Hollywood manages to come up with a remake that is so inferior to its original model that the two films do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. "Diabolique" is a case in point.
Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Les Diaboliques" was one of the classic thrillers of the fifties, as good as the best of Hitchcock's work. Jeremiah Chechik's remake borrows the same basic plot of the original, but transfers it from 1950s France to 1990s America. At the centre is the sadistic headmaster of a private school, a man who brutally mistreats not only the boys in his care but also his wife and even his beautiful mistress. The wife and mistress,tired of his mistreatment, plot together to murder him and to dispose of his body in the filthy school swimming pool, but when the pool is later drained the body has disappeared. As in the original, there is a sudden, surprise twist at the end. Chechik also, however,introduces elements that were not in Clouzot's film. The wife, Mia, here becomes a former nun, who has renounced her vows after losing her faith, but is still haunted by guilt. There is a suggestion of a lesbian relationship between Mia and the mistress, Nicole. Chechik also introduces a major character, in the form of a female detective, with no equivalent in the original film.
"Diabolique" has come in for some sharp criticism, largely because it is a remake of a classic. It is a mediocre film rather than a horrendously bad one, and if we did not have its famous predecessor to compare it with, it would doubtless be seen as just another banal and unsuccessful crime thriller. Nevertheless, I think that the criticism it has attracted is justified. Chechik must have known that one of the perils of remaking a film is that your work will be weighed in the balance against the original, and woe betide you if it is found wanting. And, compared with Clouzot's, Chechik's film is wanting indeed. He lacks the French director's sense of pacing and ability to convey suspense, with the result that his film is slow-moving where the original was brisk and flabby where the original was taut.
I was also disappointed by the acting. Isabelle Adjani can be a fine actress in her own language, as she showed in "La Reine Margot", but I have not been impressed with her in English-language films, and here her character never came to life. Sharon Stone was slightly better as the hard-bitten, sluttish Nicole, but this was not really one of her better performances and did nothing to alter my view that she has not always chosen the best vehicles in which to show off her talents. Chazz Palminteri's headmaster was almost too unpleasant to be believable, and Kathy Bates seemed wasted as the detective. Watching Clouzot's film I was glued to the screen with anticipation as I wondered how the film would end; watching Chechik's, my attention was rather glued to my watch as I wondered when it would end. 4/10