Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't Tell Them What You Saw: Les Diaboliques (1955) vs. Diabolique (1996)

There are plenty of good reasons why H.G Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) tops many "best films ever made" lists, even today. Filmed in spare, expressive black-and-white and dominated by fragile characters who might euphemistically be termed "dissolute," Clouzot's venture suggested -- or at least paved the way -- for elements of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Both film classics obsess on images of decay and death, and both successfully "trick" the first-time audience about character motivations and the ultimate direction of the narrative.

Les Diaboliques -- a title roughly translated as "The Devils" -- is set almost entirely at the Delassalle Boarding School, a campus almost in ruins from disrepair and neglect. The headmaster is the sadistic Miguel (Paul Meurisse), a man who grew up in poverty and who, in adulthood, clutches tightly to his wealth...which all arises from his wife, a former nun named Christina (Véra Clouzot). Miguel refers to Christina in not-so-loving fashion as his "little ruin," a pointed contrast, perhaps, to his big ruin...the school itself. Christina is unhappy that Miguel is so miserly that -- though they are rich -- they "live like poor people."

Miguel is also fooling around with a teacher at Delassalle, the sexy femme fatale, Nicole Horner, played by the smoldering Simone Signoret. But this is no ordinary adulterous love affair. For one thing, Christina is aware of the affair, and as the film starts, helps Nicole tend to her black eye...a result of Miguel's abuse. "The legal wife consoling the mistress?," another teacher at the school asks with astonishment.

Apparently so.

Together, Christina and Nicole plot to murder the evil Miguel, first by poisoning him, then by drowning him in a bathtub at Nicole's house in Noirt. The strategy is to transport the corpse (in a large basket) back to the campus, where it can be dumped in secret. But the murder plot goes awry, and Miguel's corpse goes missing after Nicole and Christina dispose of it in the school's filthy swimming pool.

This development is troublesome for several reasons, not the least because Christina suffers from a terrible heart condition, and the slightest bit of anxiety -- or terror -- could kill her. She is allowed "no emotions. No vexations," according to her doctor. But then, a little boy reports that he saw the headmaster alive...and the terror builds and builds until the unbearably suspenseful denouement.

Les Diaboliques qualifies as a film noir in part because of the overwhelming aura of hopelessness that blankets the movie. Poor, wounded Christina can never escape her husband...even after his demise. Secondly, the film's subject matter, a little bit police procedural, a lit bit mystery, makes it entirely simpatico with traditional noir values. Most important, perhaps, is the moral quandary the film exquisitely expresses. Christina is a nun who believes that "divorce is a deadly sin," and yet she knowingly participates in a murder attempt. Christina a keeps a shrine to her namesake, Christ, in her apartment with Miguel, but again...murder? It's the only way for her to keep the school...and her money. But does the retaining of material wealth justify killing even a really, really bad person? Though she dreams of ridding herself of Miguel, Christina fully understands the cost to her soul. "We are monsters," she laments, "I don't like monsters."

There's also a powerful sexual undercurrent here. Les Diaboliques is packed with innuendo, particularly during an early scene in which the dominating, abusive Miguel urges the saintly Christina to "swallow" her food, and she almost gags on the mouthful. Not to mention, of course, the hint of a lesbian attraction between the apparent partners in crime, Christina and Nicole.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Les Diaboliques is also clearly part horror film. In the film's scariest and most-oft imitated scene, we witness Miguel rise from the dead -- in a bath tub -- his eyes transformed into white, unseeing orbs. This shocking, macabre moment is echoed in the film's enigmatic climax, which some critics have complained rather strenuously about. It suggests that another character has also returned from the grave, at least according to the testimony of a naughty little boy.

I have always maintained that the second "resurrection" might be real (as opposed to the first resurrection...) and not just the case of a schoolboy telling tall tales. On the contrary, there could be a haunting at the school. Why? The explicit subject matter of the film has been the cost "after death," -- to the soul itself -- of moral turpitude. And with all the Christ imagery in evidence here, the idea of resurrection is thus very much in play. The terrible act that comprises film's startling finale clearly demands retribution; even beyond-the-grave-style retribution. Christina's important statement that she has become a monster might even be interpreted literally. So I view the ending as being at least ambiguous, and thus totally consistent with the preceding narrative.

Deftly directed and entirely anxiety-provoking, Les Diaboliques is one of those films in which form reflects content to an admirable degree. The movie is dominated by images of water, of drowning. The film opens with rain splattering in a puddle on hard, broken pavement, our first indication of the "storm" coming. Miguel's (false) death occurs in a bath-tub. And then, of course, there's the swimming pool -- a much larger bath tub of sorts -- and the climactic return to a bath tub in Christina's apartment. This pervasive water imagery serves, I believe, to remind audiences that it is actually Christina who is drowning here. The whole world is closing around her, in a deluge of deceit and treachery.

"He'll Never Hurt Us Again:" Or "It's Men. Testosterone. They Should Put It In Bombs."

In 1996, director Jeremiah Chechik made an extremely literal remake of Diabolique, excising the criticized hint-of-the-supernatural of the original coda and substituting a contemporary, nineties, "Year of the Woman"-style, feminist context. Here, the narrative more plainly concerned a cycle of domestic violence; of men abusing women; and abusing wives.

Even more so, the film consciously reflected the lurid, tabloid culture of the Clinton Era -- the decade that gave our nation celebrities such as Amy Fisher, and the aptly-named Lorena Bobbitt.) The three-ring white-trash circus known as The Jerry Springer Show even makes a cameo appearance in the film (playing on a television in the background.) The message: attempted murder has become the language of the culture.

In the updated film, the story is very much the same as before. A murderous love triangle between headmaster Guy Baran (Chazz Palminteri), ex-nun Mia (Isabella Adjani), and man-eater Nicole Horner (Sharon Stone) ends...badly.
The "swallow" innuendo returns in this remake too, but is much more on-the-nose since Guy actually says "swallow it for once in your life," to his put-upon spouse.
But otherwise, there are long spells in which Diabolique is actually a line-for-line regurgitation of the 1955 film, only in (much less-effective) color. By contrast, Nicole's garish wardrobe in this version represents a brilliant, resonant touch: she's dressed like a white-trash cougar, contextualizing the character as part-and-parcel of the Jerry Springer Culture. Stone is terrific as heir to Signoret, playing a snapping, sarcastic femme fatale who apparently lives by the proverb, "the tongue is like a sharp knife; it kills without drawing blood." When another character reminds the smoking Nicole that second-hand smoke kills, Stone quips, "Yeah, but not reliably," and then stalks off. Ouch.

Where the two versions of Diaboliques diverge is in characterization, and in climactic action. The first film featured a rumpled detective investigating the disappearance of Miguel. He was a retired commissioner named Alfred Fichet, and he didn't really accomplish much in terms of his investigation. In keeping with the film's hopeless tenor, he arrested the guilty parties only after the the third-act, tragic death.
The remake of Diabolique pulls an early "Starbuck" on us (Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff..) and changes the old man into a woman named Shirley Vogel, played by Kathy Bates. In this case, Shirley is a rather butch, rather crass, rather cynical cancer survivor. Like her predecessor, she also stumbles upon a crime in progress, but because the climactic violence is perpetrated against a male (and a nasty one at that...), Shirley lets it go rather an apprehending the guilty parties. She just shrugs her shoulders and joins the conspiracy: three women "survivors" allied against one monster of a man.

The nineties Diabolique involves a triangle, of course, but this time Nicole is the wild card and, in many ways, the film's protagonist. In the original film, she sided against poor Christina. In the remake, this is no longer the case. Nicole regrets her treatment of the saintly Mia, and joins her in murdering Guy. Critics, including Roger Ebert, absolutely hated this ending, feeling that it utilized the conventions of the slasher film in a gimmicky, cheap way. While the new Diabolique is clearly not in the same league as the original film, I argue that the re-interpreted ending actually works in context of the 1990s.
Early in the film, Nicole and Mia drown Guy, but it's a trick; Nicole and Guy are actually in on a plan together (only Mia doesn't know it.) The swimming-pool scuffle that ends the modern remake is staged, in close visual fashion, as a deliberate repeat of that earlier drowning...only in the pool this time. And here, finally, Nicole actually comes through; actually works with Mia. She actually gets her hands dirty.

In the earlier bathtub drowning, Mia noted to Nicole that she didn't seem upset by the execution of a cold-blooded, hands-on murder. This was so -- as we learn later -- because there was no real murder occurring. Nicole was playing at being a murderess, and the victim (Guy) wasn't really dead.
But if you study the swimming pool battle, it's clear that this time around, Nicole is absolutely shaken, mortified, by the battle. The confident facade of the femme fatale has finally dropped, and Nicole has embraced, at long last, her sisterhood in abuse and degradation, Mia. She's finally turned her venom in the appropriate direction: towards Guy.
It's no coincidence, either, that this Diabolique removes the relevant discussion of Miguel/Guy's poor upbringing. Exculpatory evidence is not presented, so-to-speak. This "Guy" is a person to be hated and despised, with no ameliorating humanity. And even his name, "Guy," reminds us of his offending sex. Why, this version even suggests the cad was having an affair with a third woman (whom he paid to have an abortion...), thus justifying Nicole's switching teams at the last moment. The subtext of this film: Guy -- like many an abusive man -- had it coming.

While it's abundantly clear that the nineties Diabolique will never make a list of "100 best films of all time," it could very well make a list of "100 Best Remakes" of all time, especially given Hollywood's blazing pace for recycling old material. The re-made Diabolique might rightly land somewhere in the high-twenties or low-thirties of such a tally. It would certainly place well behind Invasion of the Body Snatchers or John Carpenter's The Thing, and yet light years ahead of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), or the 2009 Friday the 13th. But at the very least, I can assert that this remake attempts to speak relevantly to American culture in the 1990s, rather than just blindly echoing the moves of a great, timeless film.
It's also enlightening to consider how each film ends. Clouzot's 1950s Les Diaboliques ends with legal justice, but moral tragedy. The 1990s Diabolique ends with an illegal murder, but a murder that is morally justified. Take your pick: which ending is "happier?" And what does each ending say about the society (and time period) that fashioned it?


  1. you may be one of the few american critics of my film who actually understood and articulated the intention. i do like its luridness, color and performances. ) note jj abrams as one of the reporters)

    jeremiah chechik

  2. Mr Chechik,

    Thanks for writing in! Wow!

    I admire your movie -- I own it on DVD and my wife and I watch it at least once a year.

    I feel that, in general, critics dismissed the 1996 film simply because it was a remake. But let's face it: forty-years later, you couldn't repeat the same ending and expect people to be shocked. Still, I don't think most critics looked at why those changes were true to the narrative in the remake.