My love affair with the movies of Brian De Palma continues. I was a little concerned that Femme Fatale, being a fairly recent effort (made in France in 2002), might have shown evidence of a decline in his brilliance. I needn;t have worried. This is De Palma at the top of his form. In fact it’s now my second favorite De Palma movie, after Body Double.
Like all his movies this is one that his critics will love to hate, and he gleefully provides them with ammunition! For a director who has so often been accused (quite wrongly) of stealing from the work of other great directors, what better way to open a movie than with a daring theft at the Cannes Film Festival? Although this is not quite the very first scene - the first thing we see is a woman in bed watching Double Imdemnity on TV. Right from the beginning he’s letting us know that this is a movie about movies, and he’s not going to let us forget that we’re watching a movie.
The woman in the bed turns out to be a thief named Laure, and she’s a partner in a daring plan to steal a bra worth $10 million. The diamond-encrusted bra is part of the incredibly skimpy outfit being worn by the girlfriend of a famous film director. Laure lures her into the ladies’ room and seduces her, and as she removes the bra/top piece by piece and drops them to the floor her partner replaces the pieces with exact matches, but with glass in place of the diamonds. The plan doesn’t work out quite as expected, and Laure double-crosses her partners. The lengthy heist scene is another classic almost dialogue-free De Palma set-piece, beautifully filmed and intricately constructed.
Laure is now on the run from her partners, and they’re not well pleased with her at all. They’re also not very nice people. At this point fate steps in (as it will at several other crucial points during the film). A middle-aged couple are convinced she is their daughter Lily, and after she has been hurled over a balcony she wakes up in their apartment. While he’s having a bath Lily herself walks in. Her husband has died, she has decided to blow her brains out, and she just happens to not only look exactly like Laure but to have a passport and plane ticket to the US sitting on the table. This is Laure’s escape route. On the plane she meets a nice middle-aged businessman-turned-diplomat who falls instantly in love with her, and her new life is about to begin.
We cut to seven years later, and she’s back in France. Her diplomat husband is the new US ambassador to France, but being in France isn’t a healthy thing for Laure. Her erstwhile partners in crime still want to kill her. Her attempts to hide her identity come undone when paparazzi Nick (Antonio Banderas) snaps her photo. From this point on the plot becomes extraordinarily complicated and what seemed like a fairly straightforward thriller becomes anything but straightforward. We’re into classic De Palma playing games with the audience territory, in a big way, and nothing is as we thought it was.
De Palma uses lots of his favourite tricks. What’s interesting though is that they’re not used as tricks, but as ways of emphasising the points he’s trying to make. He uses the split-screen technique repeatedly, which reinforces the doubling effect of the two identical women, and most importantly it reminds us that we cannot entirely trust what we see. It’s all a matter of perspective, of selection, of viewpoint, of focus. The same scene does not always tell us the same truths, or even the same lies. And of course it reinforces the voyeurism that is important in this film, and in most of De Palma’s films. Everything is being seen through a lens. But a voyeur can only see what appears in his camera viewfinder, and cannot be sure he is seeing the thing that matters.
We’re also influenced in the way we look at the story through the title itself, and the use of the clip from Double Indemnity at the beginning. Like Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct the movie uses the conventions of film noir but as in that film we must be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the film noir trappings, or to draw the wrong conclusions. Just as we must be careful not to be taken in too much by De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock. De Palma doesn’t steal from either film noir or Hitchcock, he simply (like any great artist) takes the work of previous masters and uses it as a basis on which to build something new and distinctively his own. This is not Double Indemnity, just as Dressed To Kill is not Psycho and Body Double is not Vertigo. De Palma has his own agendas and his own obsessions.
Rebecca Romijn as Laure/Lily is clearly an Ice Blonde, but she’s a De Palma Ice Blonde not a Hitchcock Ice Blonde. She may not be the world’s greatest actress but her performance works, and she has the look and the presence that is needed. Antonio Banderas is, as always, extremely good. Again there are superficial similarities to the classic Hitchcock hero, caught up by fate in events he fails to understand and struggling desperately to understand both the situation and the woman with whom he has become accidentally involved.
Fate is a key element in this movie. There are many outrageous coincidences, which could be regarded as a flaw in a movie that was aiming at realism. But Femme Fatale has no such aims, and the coincidences and the ways in which fate operates strengthen rather than weaken the movie.
As you expect in a De Palma movie, there is plenty of sleaze and plenty of eroticism, done with immense style. He's one of the few modern directors who can do sleaze and somehow make it classy as well, and the sex never feels like it's just tacked on for the sake of the box-office. The entire movie is permeated with out-of-control eroticism. The whole movie is wonderfully stylish, a movie made by someone in complete control of their creative powers. It’s much more than an exercise in stye and technique however. It’s a provocative examination of the consequences of fate, of choices, of what we perceive as reality (which may or may not correspond with what may or may not be actual reality). There are moments of tremendous excitement and suspense but this is mostly certainly not a thriller. It is however always entertaining. Unquestionably one of the best movies of the past decade.