Femme Fatale at first seems like just another sleek suspense thriller. The plot of a nasty woman betraying a nasty man who then comes after her is similar to The Last Seduction, which also happened to feature the last great femme fatale performance (by the sizzling Linda Fiorentino). But Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale doesn’t have the narrative coherence or witty humor of the John Dahl film. After a bravura opening, it beings to meander, but then it turns out that De Palma has something other than plot on his mind. This is a movie about movies, a regular De Palma obsession. It’s a statement on, and deconstruction of, how movies contrive to work with our voyeuristic impulses and fulfill our fantasies. That star Rebecca Romijn-Stamos happens to be more famous as supermodel than actress is no coincidence.
Romijn-Stamos plays a jewel thief named Laure Ash, and Femme Fatale opens with an image of Laure’s reflection on a television screen over Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale in Double Indemnity. It is only the first of numerous cinematic references that have come to be expected in Brian De Palma’s movies.Masquerading as a photographer, Laure is after the multi-million dollar diamonds adorning Veronica (fellow model Rie Rasmussen), a woman accompanying movie director Regis Wargnier (playing himself) to his East-West at the Cannes Film Festival.
Taking Veronica, who wears the diamonds and not much else, into the bathroom, Laure engages her in a passionate liplock (certainly the current lesbian chic hitting its peak in the movies).Orchestrated to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s riff on Ravel’s Bolero, the heist progresses as Laure’s two colleagues (Eriq Ebouaney and Edouard Montoute) make preparations for her escape. Then she betrays them.Laure runs for her life to Paris where a supremely fortuitous case of mistaken identity offers her a safe haven.
When ex-paparazzi photographer, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), inadvertently reveals her new alias to her ex-partners, Laure has to concoct a new scheme to extricate herself that involves blackmailing her own husband (Peter Coyote), a U.S. ambassador to France.If all that sounds convoluted, it is. Adding to that, Femme Fatale, like so many recent films, ends with a big twist that changes the way you look at everything that has come before. The twist is revealing, both literally and metaphorically, marked by the image of Romijn-Stamos baring all.
De Palma has always been fixated on cinematic iconography and references, particularly to Alfred Hitchcock’s sexual-repression themed films.What is implicitly lurid and kinky in those films, De Palma makes explicit in his own works like Body Double and Dressed to Kill. With Femme Fatale, De Palma references his past obsessions – Nicholas’ voyeuristic photography is yet another homage to Rear Window, Laure’s assumption of a new identity and Nicholas’ following her around winks at Vertigo – and this time around, De Palma even makes an odd nod to It’s a Wonderful Life.
Despite being a technically dazzling filmmaker, De Palma has often failed to translate those skills into raising the emotions in his films to the operatic heights he seems to so desire.Part of that might be because his characters frequently feel like instruments utilized for his own fetishistic ends rather than as human beings with any dignity.Femme Fatale has the same traditional failings but subverts them by making them part of the point even as the entire movie turns out to be a lark.It is nevertheless one that is emotionally and intellectually resonant.It makes the viewer reflect on the viewing experience itself as an act of manipulation, a willing suspension of disbelief, and a catering to one’s desires and to social appropriateness (in this instance – both a comeuppance and a deliberately contrived happy ending).
Alas, Romijn-Stamos is no Linda Fiorentino in the acting category, and whenever she speaks normal English, which actually isn’t that frequent in the movie, she is wholly unconvincing.But she works fine when dubbed into French or ironically enough, when faking a French accent.De Palma certainly takes advantage of her and Rasmussen’s photogenic features; both of them are dressed throughout as if they never left the catwalk. Camouflage has never looked so sexy. – George Wu