The New Cult Canon: Femme Fatale

The New Cult Canon: Femme Fatale

“I’m a bad girl, Nicolas. Real bad. Rotten to the heart.” —Rebecca Romijn, Femme Fatale

Every year at the Toronto Film Festival—and quite possibly at other festivals around the world, major or minor—director Brian De Palma can be spotted shuffling around with the rest of the press and industry folks, slipping inconspicuously into one screening after another. If he weren’t a semi-celebrity (at least among nerdy cineastes like me), he’d fit the prototypical profile of a festival critic: Bearded and schlubby, outfitted in comfy jeans and old running shoes, bleary-eyed from dragging himself through four to six screenings a day. Point being, he remains a voracious cinephile, and what’s more, he as much as any filmmaker alive sees the world through the prism of other movies. Detractors like to tar him as a vulgarian and a hack, someone who cribs ideas from masters like Hitchcock and updates them through modern-day explicitness and empty formalism. But he’s really more like his badge-wearing brethren at the film festival, a critic who happens to work behind the camera, commenting on the medium’s history, devices, and tropes while taking a jaundiced view of the world at large. If there’s such a thing as a “wonky” director, De Palma fits the bill better than anybody.

Even by De Palma standards, Femme Fatale is about as wonky as it gets, and if that isn’t apparent enough in its movie-movie title, there’s also the opening shot of De Palma’s femme fatale, an icy blonde played by Rebecca Romijn (while she was still Stamos-ed), watching the noir classic Double Indemnity on television, perhaps to pick up pointers from Barbara Stanwyck, cinema’s reigning double-crosser. And this is before the curtains open on a magnificent setpiece at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the same festival where Femme Fatale itself would première a year later. It hurts the brain to consider the many layers of artifice De Palma is piling on just in the first few minutes, but for what’s essentially an academic exercise, the film is an awful lot of fun.

Perhaps he felt more emboldened to be himself. Though De Palma more or less delivered the goods on the Tom Cruise franchise-starter Mission: Impossible—which, it should be said, includes one of his all-time great setpieces in the Langley break-in—his subsequent studio efforts, 1998’s Snake Eyes and 2000’s Mission To Mars, weren’t terribly successful critically or commercially, though they have their defenders. (Of the latter film, my friend Jim Ridley—an ardent De Palma fan and a critic for the Nashville Scene and the Village Voice—said it best: “I wish De Palma weren’t so determined to turn his admirers into apologists.”) In the wake of this falling out with Hollywood, De Palma was able to get financing from the French, and carte blanche to do a movie as uncompromisingly meta as 2002’s Femme Fatale. Normally, you can count the Hitchcock references in a De Palma film; here, you can also count the references to De Palma referencing Hitchcock in his previous work. If Dressed To Kill is his comment on Psycho, for example, then Femme Fatale is one step removed from that, like a comment on commenting on Psycho. (Though it has more in common with Vertigo.)

The opening sequence at Cannes sets the tone perfectly, because it makes the audience acutely aware that it’s watching a movie, and that De Palma is interested in exploring the mechanics that make a noir thriller work. To the strains of Ravel’s “Bolero”—excuse me, the lush appropriation of Ravel’s “Bolero” by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto—De Palma lays out an audacious jewel heist as only he could conceive it. $10 million in diamonds is at stake, but they aren’t locked away in some vault or piled into a black velvet sack; instead, they’re encrusted on the serpentine brassiere of the gorgeous brunette serving as the arm candy of (real-life director) Régis Wargnier for the première of his (really forgettable) movie East/West. Posing as an aggressive paparazzo, Laure Ash (Romijn) pulls off the heist by seducing the woman and liberating her of the jewels in a translucent bathroom stall. When the dust settles, Laure walks away with the diamonds after double-crossing her partner (Eriq Ebouaney), leaving him with a bullet wound and a seven-year prison sentence in southern France.

It’s a patently ridiculous scheme, even knowing as we do later that the jewel-bearer was in cahoots, but De Palma plays the trashy conceit to the hilt. As with the Langley sequence in Mission: Impossible, he has the patience to build tension by showing every element that goes into the heist: Laure making her move, one man rappelling down an air duct, another one assuming the role of a security guard, and still another lifting a key for the escape route. The timing has to be perfect, and there’s that same level of precision to De Palma’s choreography; if he weren’t a filmmaker, his sense of timing and logistics would have made him an ace professional thief. On top of that, he updates the “femme fatale” archetype from the Stanwyck model to the brazenly sexual likes of Romijn, much as he did with Melanie Griffith in his underrated 1984 thriller Body Double.

Following the heist, Laure needs to get out of France for good, and she enjoys the absurd fortune of stumbling across her doppelgänger (also played by Romijn, in a brunette wig) in a Paris apartment. The woman, Lily, is distraught over losing her husband and child, and she commits suicide, leaving Laure with a ready-made identity switch, a passport, and even a ticket to the United States. (The ridiculousness of this situation is explained later, but even then, it’s best to keep in mind that plausibility isn’t of much value in De Palma-land.) She also lucks into a first-class seat next to a wealthy, dashing American entrepreneur and statesman (Peter Coyote). Seven years later, the statesman is stationed permanently in Paris as America’s ambassador, and Laure/Lily is his camera-shy wife. When freelance photographer Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) cons his way into snapping a picture of the elusive Laure, and the shot circulates around the city, she becomes a target for the crooks she betrayed on a similar jewel heist. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to bilk her own husband for another 10 mil.

The obvious antecedent to Romijn’s hardcore, post-feminist, icy blonde femme fatale is Sharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, another trashy tongue-in-cheek provocation. Romijn doesn’t pull off the role nearly as well—her try at a fakey French accent could barely be called an attempt, and her line-readings fall flat at crucial moments—but she looks the part, and when that part is of a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, the casting makes sense. Her character also isn’t as clinical and obviously calculating as Stone’s, and she derives more pleasure from her bad-girl status. Take what’s perhaps the film’s most talked-about scene (aside from maybe the opening), where Laure/Lily does a striptease for a stranger at a biker bar just to make Nicolas jealous and pit the two men against each other. The payoff? She gets a good laugh out of it: 

Much of the fun of Femme Fatale comes from how easily Laure/Lily undermines poor Nicolas, in spite of his certainty at various times that he’s put one over on her. In that sense, he unwittingly plays the Fred MacMurray part in Double Indemnity, one that’s been duplicated in crime films ever since—a smart guy, thinking he’s gamed the system, and believing he’s a step ahead, when in reality, the seductress who snagged him in a criminal plot to bilk her rich husband out of money has been firmly in control from the start. So there are a couple layers of irony to Nicolas tape-recording the following monologue, thinking he has incriminated her:

You know why no good deed goes unpunished? Because this world is hell, and you’re nothing but a fucking patsy. I made everybody think you kidnapped me so I could screw my husband out of 10 million bucks. That’s what it’s all about—me disappearing with 10 million bucks.

Of course, the tape recording doesn’t spare him the inevitable double-cross that will send him the way of MacMurray, but then again, De Palma plays his audience for patsies in the end, too, so we can sympathize. At the moment that Laure/Lily seems to meet her maker in the Seine, we’re suddenly thrust back in time seven years ago, when Laure met Lily, and Lily’s suicide set her fate on the track we’ve followed. Suddenly, the movie itself has a doppelgänger, except now Lily can take Laure’s path, and the world can change in the minor but crucial ways that will set everything right. It seems crazy for De Palma to cast Laure’s adventures as an extended dream of what might have been (“I’m your fucking fairy godmother,” she tells Lily. “I just dreamt your future, and mine too”), but he’s been preparing you for it the whole time, from little details like the “Deju Vue” posters rolled out on the Paris streets to the general feeling that you’re watching a movie about movies. And as you know, in movies, anything can happen.

Coming up:

Next week: Beau Travail

Mar. 19: The Way Of The Gun

Mar. 26: The Room

And in April… Animation Month! (Titles TBD.)