Sunday, October 19, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Femme Fatale (2002)

Though hammered relentlessly by mainstream critics and shunned by general audiences on release, director Brian De Palma's 2002 thriller, Femme Fatale, must, on retrospect, rank as one of the and most underrated and under appreciated films of this decade. This movie is a mind-blowing trip; an outrageous and dazzling mystery in which all the "clues" are right in our face...if only we understand them.

Pivoting (nay, spinning...) upon familiar De Palma obsessions including mistaken identity, doppelgangers, and voyeurism, Femme Fatale is a dizzying, transcendent endeavor preoccupied with the way we see things; about the ways our eyes judge, interpret and misinterpret even that which seems - at first glance - crystal clear.

for example, an icy blond woman viewed from a distance in an upstairs apartment may appear, in a heartbeat, threatened by a man brandishing a gun. Or given a little more information, maybe she's actually purchasing the gun from that man. First impressions are not always correct. Or are they? This is the kind of cryptic moment Femme Fatale presents us again and again; ones in which our initial interpretation must be re-considered and re-evaluated.

Actually, come to think of it, every facet of the multi-layered Femme Fatale encourages the act of "seeing double;" or rather, interpreting double. That's why we get a plethora of split screen shots (the same scene, "viewed" from different perspectives); that's we get a daring, third-act re-boot. That's why we see a Parisian avenue both as "real" and -- in exacting detail -- as a work of art. Even the title lends itself to two distinct meanings.

In the traditional Barbara Stanwyck/Double Indemnity (1944) definition, a femme fatale is a dangerous siren, an alluring seductress out to lead a (usually hapless) man to ruin. But did you know that the French word femme fatale (meaning "deadly woman") may also refer to a woman who is herself trapped? One who is the victim in a scheme; not the victimizer. Throughout this film, both interpretations of femme fatale eventually cross our orbit and we reel with the possibilities.

The film's protagonist, Laure Ashe (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) may be viewed as either a woman manipulating those men around her, including photographer Nicolos Bardo (Antonio Banderas) and the diplomat, Ambassador Watts (Peter Coyote); or rather as a woman trapped in an ever-narrowing cage: one attempting to outrun the vicious criminals she once double-crossed on a daring caper in the year 2001.

How we view femme fatale Laure Ashe (and how others view her) is crucial to an understanding of this film, and De Palma - ever the master of visualization - makes certain that our glimpses of her nature, are -- to put it mildly -- diverse (not to mention ambiguous). In one instance, we view Laure from behind the opaque glass of a bathroom stall, where she makes love to a "mark" during a caper. In another, we watch Laure in long shot, conducting secret business, via the distancing eye of a camera's telephoto lens. When we first view Laure, in fact, it is her reflection (her opposite) we see displayed on a television set; one not coincidentally broadcasting the classic film noir Double Indemnity. At other times, we see Laure through the water of a fish tank, and this view is "murky.

In many of these cases, De Palma is simultaneously revealing Laure to us and hiding Laure from us. In the bathroom stall love scene (in which a sexually androgynous Laure seduces a gorgeous female model), for instance, we almost don't get to the scene's most important question: what is glass and what is diamond? Like a masterful magician, De Palma misdirects our attention...right before our lying eyes. Or, as critic Charles Taylor wrote in Salon:

"De Palma has been making movies for 40 years now, and he's never stopped developing and transforming his favorite devices -- split screen, slow motion, cameras that prowl the sets in long, unbroken shots. The confidence he has long shown has only deepened with each new movie. He has mastered the assurance that is the true mark of sophisticated moviemaking. In "Femme Fatale" De Palma is comparable to the sly prankster Luis Buñuel proved himself to be in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
De Palma makes a joke of our gullibility and gets us to laugh at how easy it is to be suckered -- and how much fun it is."

Femme Fatale commences with an audacious jewelry heist at Cannes (following a brief scene with Laure luxuriating in a hotel room, watching Double Indemnity). Pretending to be a photographer, Laure seduces a gorgeous, mostly-naked model wearing a ten million dollar diamond bauble. But then, Laure double-crosses her criminal associates, and attempts to escape Europe with her ill-gotten loot. Along her escape route, Laure ends up in the home of a doppelganger, a woman whose husband and daughter have tragically died. Luxuriating in a glittering bath, Laure watches -- spellbound -- as her grieving "double" kills herself
. Seizing an opportunity, Laure steals the dead woman's identity and flies to America, where she soon becomes the wife of Ambassador Watts. Laure's seamy past only re-surfaces when she returns to Francein the year 2008, and a down-on-his-luck photographer, Nicolos exposes her to the public; snapping a photograph of the ambassador's wife that permits Laure's old associates from the diamond heist to hunt her down and exact bloody revenge after seven years.

But the plot's greatest conceit is a third-act surprise which reveals that every element of the narrative following Laure's bath at the home of her doppelganger is - simply - a prophetic dream. In this "dream" (or nightmare) version of events we see first, Laure cannot escape the trap she has found herself locked inside. Like a caged, desperate animal, she attempts to blackmail her husband (Watts); she kills Nicolos, her blackmail victim, and finally ends up thrown off a bridge by her former associates....murdered.

Awake from this startling and disturbing dream (one which takes up a large percentage of the film's running time...), Laure is suddenly and remarkably gifted an opportunity to escape this fate trap by changing one single incident: rescuing her mourning doppelganger from suicide. That one act alone will alter the entire chain of events in the dream and free this femme fatale from a purgatory of her own making. This one act will set an entirely new destiny in motion; and we see that destiny play out in Femme Fatale's audacious, violent and bravura finale.

For some, this central plot element -- a prophetic dream that plays as real while we watch it -- may be a bridge too far. Yet, on close inspection, one can detect how De Palma has prepared us for it. Much of the film's dialogue involves the idea of dreams walking alongside "reality." For instance, in her hotel room at film's commencement, Laure's corrupt associate slaps her across the face and shouts "Are you high? Then stop dreaming, bitch!" This moment establishes that -- even as Laure watches Double Indemnity -- our heroine is somehow in touch with (or linked with) the dream world.

Later, as Laure prepares to take a bath in the home of the grieving widow, we hear a television advertisement playing in the background. "Wouldn't you like to have a crystal ball and see how things are turn out?" The ad asks, rather pointedly. This is, indeed, Laure's burning question: how can she escape the trap she has set for herself (by stealing the diamonds and double-crossing her associates)?

This purposeful dialogue prepares us for the "bait and switch" aspects of Femme Fatale (going from reality to prophetic dream and back to reality), and De Palma has crafted a movie in which the visuals cannily underline the idea of "two tracks" of life (dream and reality). His split screens accomplish this task (of two views at once) and so we're back to my definition of a good movie: one in which visual form echoes narrative content.

But the leitmotif of the dream is also valuable, because it shows us, as Laure states at one point, that life can be either "sugar" or "vinegar." Life can be good...or life can be bad; fate can be happy...or fate can be tragic (as it is for Laure's doppelganger). Accordingly, De Palma -- in accordance with his career-long obsession on double vision and double interpretation -- depicts both the vinegar (the dark path...) and the sugar (the light path...) here. Some audiences and critics likely believed this (the dream) was a gimmick; but De Palma's approach is careful, consistent and smart.

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed High Tension (2005) here on the blog, another film with a "twist" at the end, and I complained that it did not play fair with audiences. Here's why: that Alexandre Aja film attempted to convince us (the audience) that the Final Girl and the Serial Killer were one in the same person. That they shared a splintered psyche as well as a physical form. Meaning that it was the Final Girl who committed all the murders, and so forth. Yet, that explanation seemed to fly in the face of the film's clear facts as depicted for us (for instance, that the killer and the Final Girl clearly arrived at the scene of the crime in separate vehicle; that one victim was chained in the killer's truck which -- if you believed the twist -- never actually existed).

By contrast, I argue that Femme Fatale does play fair with the audience because De Palma visually "sections off" the dream sequence from the rest of the film, essentially book-ending the events of the dream with a definite end and a definite beginning. There's no reason for guess work, it's all clear. The dream begins with a certain sequence: Laure sinking down in the tub, as the film cuts to a clock showing the time: approximately 3:35 pm. At the end of the dream, the same sequence repeats, and we see the clock again, still showing approximately 3:35 pm. See? No fuss, no muss.

This book-ending of the dream in this fashion (the shots of the clock showing approximately the same time) allows audiences to understand that the events of the first-act heist (before the bath tub scene) are "real" and that everything after the bath-tub scene (the third act...) are also real.

The dream, in much the same manner as De Palma's frequent split-screen views, is thus a glimpse at "another track" of fate. Furthermore, Laure specifically acts on knowledge from the dream to change fate; to change her destiny. Nothing she does after the dream is contradictory or confusing, and we are not left asking "how did she get from here to there? Where did she get a gun? How did she meet, for example, Nicolas?" No -- on the contrary -- we are led to understand that the dream served a didactic purpose. That Laure will live the next seven years for real this time, with knowledge of that nightmare ("wouldn't you like to have a crystal ball?") to make better decisions.

The dialogue I mentioned above has prepared us here; De Palma's repetition of shots (the bath; the clock) has similarly prepared us. Sure, we were tricked initially (in watching the "dream" and believing it real), but that's as it should be: we're fooled (or tricked...) throughout the film into believing that something false is real (like the scene with Laure purchasing a gun; or the scene in which diamonds either are/or are not replaced by glass substitutes). The dream "trick" fits in with the central leitmotif of Femme Fatale: two interpretations; two views of reality, and our lying eyes unable to determine easily what is truth and what is not.

There about a dozen reasons to admire Femme Fatale as a stirring work of film art (not to mention as lurid entertainment). Beyond that which I've noted above (the double vision/double interpretation leitmotif), there's the opening sequence heist (cut dramatically to Maurice Ravel's Bolero) which is a masterwork of film technique; a sustained build-up of tension with a brilliant and cathartic crescendo. This is an example of why I love De Palma: he's a virtuoso with the camera.

Also, Rebecca Romjin -- wasted as nothing but a hot body in the popular X-Men franchise films -- gives an eye-popping, multi-layered performance in this film, skillfully adopting a number of interconnected identities (from clever Laure to grieving doppelganger; from lesbian seductress to sexy stripper; from femme fatale as victim to femme fatale as victimizer.). Yet despite her amazing portrayals, surely it is De Palma who is the real"star" here. The director has finally given the age-old film noir format a new and original twist. He's accomplished the seemingly impossible here : created an optimistic example of the format; one in which we can awake from the pervasive darkness to a more sunlit and hopeful world; one in which the multitudinous traps set by fate can be avoided or side-stepped. One in which dark destiny is not written in stone.

Like most film noirs, Femme Fatale is an erotic, cynical, cruel, and enigmatic crime drama; but unlike most of its brethren, here that ominous world is the "dream," not the depressing, pessimistic reality. I said from the outset of this review that Femme Fatale is "transcendent," and that's the case because De Palma - by visualizing two "parallel" worlds -- depicts how one good deed (saving a woman from suicide) can have a domino effect on the very foundation of reality, progressively knocking down the darkness and letting in the light, a little at a time. Laure starts out as Barbara Stanwyck, but by film's end, she is on the side of the angels. Thus Femme Fatale is about redemption.

Even the character archetypes we believed locked forever in stone --the femme fatale of the title -- can change; can grow; can mature. At least if Brian De Palma has anything to say about it.


  1. Wow. Fantastic essay!

    1. Agreed ! Just saw the film tonight, and am so glad I read this. The essay cleared up my total confusion and frustration, and has actually convinced me that the film deserves another viewing !

  2. Loved your insight. Brian is a true genius.

  3. Anonymous10:37 PM

    Good analysis, definitely an underappreciated film.


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