After enduring a severe drubbing at the American box-office, there is a pitiful irony in the way Femme Fatale has been dumped straight onto the UK video market. While trailers and posters identified its maker as a ‘master of the erotic thriller’ (an epithet that refers chiefly to Dressed to Kill and Body Double, films released two decades ago) potential viewers may have been forgiven for assuming this was an upmarket variation on the kind of low rent fumble-fest tossed off regularly in the 90s by the likes of Alexander Gregory Hippolyte.
Instead, to the bafflement of fans of such straight to video hackery, De Palma has unveiled neo-noir’s most flamboyant variation yet on the allure of the spider woman. However, while film noir provides the most obvious point of reference (a fact underlined by the 4 minute opening shot that commences on a television screen showing Double Indemnity), De Palma has fused his take on the genre’s duplicitous dame with yet another dazzling recap of his recurrent obsessions. Loaded with narrative bluffs, camera gymnastics, outrageous coincidences and dense audio-visual manipulations, the film gleefully flaunts its absurdities and indiscretions, demonstrating an awareness of cinema’s voyeuristic pleasures which will have film theorists choking on their popcorn.
True to form, De Palma has infused the film with Hitchcockian allusions, as well as a more than cursory nod to Antonioni’s Blow Up (the shadow of which loomed large over De Palma’s own Blow Out). The high-tech trappings continue De Palma’s ongoing commentary on both the ramifications of surveillance culture, with images repeatedly evoked through the lenses of still and video cameras, night vision goggles and binoculars. Complementing the murderous, matrimonial and sexual pursuit of the eponymous figure by several of the film’s male characters, the film showcases De Palma’s familiar theme of sound and image technology, which has become the ultimate adjunct to personal obsession. In tandem, De Palma has upped the ante by aligning the play on images with a dream narrative, albeit one that comes complete with ‘seven years later’ captions, split-screen effects and subtitled French.
While much of the film gleefully baits those who accuse its director of stylistic overkill, there is a curious logic at play, even while the film seems to simultaneously go into orbit. All the signs that the audience is being led on a merry dance are there: surreal details such as the bloodied shirt still worn by a character shot seven years previously; the repeated emphasis on flowing water; and the clocks that all seem permanently stuck at 3.33. Also, many of the major characters in the mid-section are dream ‘echoes’ of figures glimpsed fleetingly during the heist and escape opening. Characters are frequently visualised through split screens or frames within the frame, grounding them in a rigorously sustained artificiality. The pivotal image comes following a jump-cut from the apparent suicide of Laure’s (Rebecca Romijn Stamos) doppelganger – momentarily filling the screen is what appears to be a giant swirling quotation mark, which is actually the design pattern on a jetliner engine.
It is this fascination with objects and characters as the product of images that obstructs the attempt to secure Laure’s place in the pantheon of noir bad girls. Perhaps because of the film’s extreme appropriation of genre tropes, the femme fatale is reduced here to little more than a surface effect, the spider woman as pure genre signifier. At an even more self-conscious level, Laure may also act as De Palma’s apology for the repeated accusations of misogyny that have hounded him at various junctures during his career.
This doesn’t mean that De Palma wastes any opportunity to photograph Stamos in a considerable array of couture and underwear. As suggested in the opening shot, in which Laure’s rapt, static reflection is cast on a television monitor, this is a figure derived as much from other movies as from any engagement with a post-feminist zeitgeist. In fact, it seems quite plausible, given the narrative and character games that De Palma is playing, that ‘Laure’ herself is an elaborate construct, the character’s true identity remaining well and truly concealed. As if her rap sheet of larceny and deception isn’t enough, the film allows her to purr "I’m a baaaad girl" to the hapless Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), one of the most ineffectual additions to De Palma’s gallery of metaphorically (or literally, if one considers Michael Caine in Dressed To Kill) castrated males.
In a film so concerned with the furtive art and craft of looking, De Palma seems keen to show Laure ‘returning the gaze’, not only through her own use of various items of film and video hardware, but also through a privileged position within the narrative that, in the final reel, enables her to undo everything the film has been seemingly driving towards. Effectively, having dreamed her own future as one of transgression, pursuit and punishment, Laure is given the privilege of total narrative reclamation – a refreshing twist on the ‘it was all a dream’ scenario so often invoked as a convenient get-out clause.
Here, it provides an alternative to the conventional generic resolutions of the dream segment in which Laure’s crimes are punished by her own peers, and alternative sexuality is a short cut to gruesome death. As is often the case, De Palma should be commended here for his sheer daring. As many of his contemporaries seem more and more strained in their quest for a ‘serious’ popular American cinema, he has looked beyond US shores (much of the funding came from France) and produced an audacious slice of pop auterism. Moreover, in the year Oscars rained down on Chicago, it is tempting to imagine Femme Fatale as its errant alter-ego, the tale of a wayward bad girl and her faithful sidekick who take on the big boys at their own game and beat them hands down.