Canon Entry - Femme Fatale (2002)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Brian De Palma is not a visionary director. He loves to burrow into the basest of genre filth and wallow in it. Accusations of misogyny and sensationalism have been leveled at him since the beginning of his career, and there honestly isn’t much defense against them. The not-so-big secret to this is that De Palma does not give a damn what you think of him.
Consider Femme Fatale, which is the most bonkers feature out of the ones I have seen by De Palma. The movie starts out conventionally enough. We see a Mission: Impossible type sequence with several players conspiring in typically complicated fashion to steal the diamonds off a patently impractical gold bustier-type thing a model is wearing. There’s that classic Mission: Impossible shot of a guy going down a rope through a vent. There’s the guy who pretends to be a bumbling fool to steal an important key. This is probably one of the best-executed scenes in the film with De Palma’s fluid camera work and masterful editing back and forth among several different characters. Even if we’ve seen scenes like this in hundreds of heist movies before, it is still enthralling because De Palma has always been a technically great filmmaker. The sequence is only heightened by the fact that it is set during the Cannes Film festival and the insistent march of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals makes it a sensuous ballet.
And there is Rebecca Romijn as Laure, the titular femme fatale. Even though Romijn is the most recognizable face in this crew, we don’t necessarily get the sense that she will be central to the narrative from this sequence alone. If this sequence had been the whole film, then critics could have rightly accused De Palma of including Romijn and her seduction of that model as sheer titillation and gross misogyny. But of course it doesn’t end there. The heist goes south very quickly and soon Romijn finds herself on the run from her former co-conspirators. Through a series of mishaps, she finds herself nursing her wounds in the bath at the home of an elderly French couple, who have mistaken her for their daughter, Lily.
And this is where the film really gets bonkers, although first-time viewers won’t necessarily realize this. The real Lily (also played by Romijn) returns to the apartment and kills herself as Laure looks online. She adopts Lily’s identity and flees the country and ends up married to a diplomat she meets on the plane (Peter Coyote). When she finds herself back in France seven years later, her former co-conspirators find out about her, largely thanks to a photograph that a down-on-his-luck photographer Nicholas (Antonio Banderas) has taken.
Though Laure is in great danger, she is also resourceful and smart. The term femme fatale may traditionally be a sexist term that reduces women to some stereotype that aligns with the madonna-whore complex. However, femme fatales are often the most compelling characters in any movie. De Palma and Romijn certainly thinks so. Romijn is far from just a beautiful face. She is tough, clever, quick-thinking and totally aware of her gifts, including her physical ones.
Even when she presents herself as a object for the male gaze, as in the strip tease scene. It is clear that she is the one in power. Nicholas (Banderas) is overwhelmed by Laure from the very beginning. Even though technically he has the upper hand when he takes a picture of her that reveals her identity and whereabout to the people who want to kill her, he soon gets embroiled in her own complicated plot to extricate herself from her situation permanently. When that striptease scene happens, Nicholas is actually flustered and wants her to stop, contrary to what one might expect for a movie that’s only supposed to be about titillation.
Though I have described much of the plot of the movie, I have given away nothing of its impact, which depends just as much on the execution of the movie rather than any big twist ending. Much of the film is about going against expectations. Even though at the beginning of the movie, we are invited to see Laure as a cipher, a beautiful cipher, she becomes much more than that. We see her from the back as she watches the classic noir Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, the classic femme fatale. We don’t really get a good shot of her whole presence until the heist I mentioned earlier. But De Palma and Romijn have worked together to leave an impression on our minds just from this relatively subtle scene.
Going back to Double Indemnity, Few people remember Fred MacMurray from that movie (although he’s very good in it), but everyone remembers Stanwyck. Even though she must depend on a man to make her ambitions come true, she is far from powerless. In Femme Fatale, Even though we see Laure get slapped by one of her conspirators, we know that act of violence will not go unrequited.
The whole film plays like a fantasy of dominance and sexual intrigue, but though the movie itself is really sexy, it gets its sexiness from the admiration of Laure and her exultation in her powers rather than from the leering eye of an exploitative filmmaker, which I don’t think De Palma is, even if he is often seen that way. De Palma is much more concerned with the craft of his film and exploring the limitations of it, as well as analyzing the attitudes behind what drives genre pictures. Scarface is one of the best dissections of capitalism; Body Double is about voyeurism and sensationalism and how intertwined that is with modern conceptions of sexuality; Femme Fatale is about an exploration of a trope, breaking it down to its components, and then totally re-molding our ideas about the whole endeavor.