Director : Brian De Palma
Screenplay : Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Laure Ash), Antonio Banderas (Nicolas Bardo), Peter Coyote (Bruce Hewitt Watts), Eriq Ebouaney (Black Tie), Edouard Montoute (Racine), Rie Rasmussen (Veronica), Thierry Frémont (Serra)
Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale is a tour de force of giddy-enthralling cinematic trashiness. It’s a true return to a form for an old master who is constantly threatening to mellow and go soft, a highly self-conscious meditation on both De Palma’s inspirations and himself. It’s everything De Palma’s detractors hate about him and his fans love about him—it thumbs its nose at convention, laughs at logic, and gives a big middle finger to prudes, blue noses, and film purists. After the misfired mainstream drudgery of Mission to Mars (2000), it’s a relief to see De Palma getting back to his perverse, psychoanalytic-infused roots, exploring notions of voyeurism, sexuality, violence, and manipulative domination both on-screen and behind the camera.
De Palma opens the film in utterly ballsy fashion by showing his femme fatale, an icy blonde named Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watching the ultimate femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). This obviously invites comparison, which some have read as reckless at best, stupid at worst. But, that’s De Palma “up yours” attitude and, if you can’t take it there, then the rest of the movie probably isn’t for you either. After all, De Palma is setting up a comparison, but one in which we are meant to eventually find more differences than similarities. While Phyllis is bad through and through (“rotten to the core” as she herself says), Laure is a more complex creature, a meditation on slinky feminine evil that suggests that the naughty and the nice might co-exist in our worst fictional vixens.
The narrative is not worth describing in detail because it is so complex, convoluted, twisted, and sometimes downright confusing. It begins with Laure operating as part of an elaborate heist in the Palais des Festivals at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival (De Palma actually convinced the French to allow him to film during the festival itself, thus filling the frame with real European celebrities). The heist goes bad, and Laure ends up double-crossing everyone, winding up with millions of dollars in diamonds. (In true Hitchcock fashion, though, the diamonds are a macguffin—they ultimately don’t mean a thing other than as an excuse to set the plot in motion.)
She ends up on a plane to the U.S. next to a prominent American businessman named Bruce Hewitt Watts (Peter Coyote). Seven years later, he is the ambassador to France and she is his wife. Meanwhile, Laure’s ex-associates have not forgotten the double-cross and are looking for her. And, as every femme fatale must have a patsy, the role is amply filled by Antonio Banderas as Nicolas Bardo, a good-hearted paparazzi photographer (how’s that for a twisted oxymoron?) who gets involved with Laure in all the worst ways, trailing along behind her even when he knows it’s bad for his health.
That brief run-down only begins to touch on everything that happens, and the narrative’s inherent instability and lack of cohering internal logic is one of the first clues to what De Palma is up to. Rather than spinning a complex story, he’s more interesting in slapping as many signifiers on the screen as possible, running through a litany of film noir stock characters and situation types, reinventing them in a modern guise and exposing them for their inherent artifice. The opening heist scenario is a perfect example, as it is flawlessly constructed on a formal level, conveying a complex plan with virtually no dialogue, only bravura camera moves and exquisite framing. Yet, the plan itself is so outrageously ridiculous (it involves Laure seducing a movie director’s girlfriend in the ladies’ room and disrobing her of a priceless jeweled breastplate that is then switched out with a fake by someone in the next stall) that one cannot help but laugh while being simultaneously awe-struck by the virtuosity with which De Palma pulls it off.
The same might be said for Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who, like many of Hitchcock’s leading ladies (well, at least Tippi Hedron), is a beautiful blonde of limited acting ability. Romijn-Stamons fits the physical aspects of the role perfectly; tall, lithe, full-lipped, and utterly sensual, she dominates every frame she’s in, even making someone with the presence of Antonio Banderas seem like a sap. De Palma wisely keeps her from speaking as much as possible, and when she does she speaks lines that sound like ... well, like something from a movie.
To accuse the film of having bad acting or phony dialogue or to complain that the characters don’t feel “real” is to completely miss the point—De Palma is making a movie and he wants you to know it. There are no attempts to suture you into the narrative or connive you into the notion that any of this is even remotely real. It is artifice through and through, and De Palma is loving every minute of it.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick