Brian De Palma’s films are a treat for people who watch a lot of movies, and Femme Fatale is no exception. Starting with an excerpt from Double Indemnity – the bit where Barbara Stanwyck is telling Fred MacMurray that she’s “rotten to the heart” – it then replays a similar scenario, with a tweak, in the modern (2002) era, with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (as she was at the time) in the “femme fatale” role and Antonio Banderas as the guy trying to hang on to his testicles.
Romijn-Stamos plays a very bad woman indeed, and in typically playful, relentlessly referential De Palma style the action starts at the Cannes film festival where her badass Laure is part of a team involved in the incredibly elaborate heisting of a haul of diamonds being worn by one of the Cannes attendees.
You could watch this sequence alone, marvel at the outfit Rie Rasmussen is (almost) wearing, De Palma’s swinging Hitchcockian cameras, the audacity of the heist, accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s rat-a-tat reworking of Ravel’s Bolero and go home happy. But there’s more.
After Laure absconds with all the jewels herself, leaving her fellow gang members high and dry and baying for her blood, the action cuts to seven years in the future. Laure is now reluctantly back in France, because she’s now the wife of the US ambassador to that country, and is trying to lie low, aware that once she pops up on the publicity radar her old gang will be coming for her.
A plan upended when a smart, lone paparazzo called Bardo (Antonio Banderas) grabs a picture of her and it ends up in all the papers. From here a breathless pursuit, in which Laure attempts to play all parties – husband, photographer, husband’s security, bad guys – off against each other, dressed sometimes in a deliberate Grace Kelly style, at other times dressed in barely anything at all, while Bardo resists the urge to be entirely captivated (Fred MacMurray style).
The first hour is cinematic bliss, of De Palma setting a plot running in one direction, only to change direction when we least expect it, then again, and again. This sort of thing cannot be sustained and in the second hour De Palma has to start to explaining himself and make some moves towards digging himself out of at least some of the plot holes he’s dug himself into in the first hour. Who are all these people? What are they up to etc?
It is the femme fatale not as destructive force – à la Stanwyck – but as agent in her own right. For all Bardo’s white-knightery, he’s got barely any idea what’s going on in Femme Fatale. Banderas’s role is largely ornamental and it’s noticeable and probably deliberate that Bardo is shorter than Laure even in his Cuban heels.
Throughout, De Palma touches base with several Hitchcock themes. There is doubling (and split screens), there is voyeurism on a grand scale, there is thwarted male desire, a wrong man, a mystery blonde. Somewhere in the background the skeleton of Vertigo lurks, while Sakamoto apes Bernard Herrmann’s now-silken, now-urgent strings
In Femme Fatale De Palma attempts to give us both the joys of genre and the joys of genre disrupted. It’s both a mainstream movie and an arthouse movie. Perhaps that explains its fairly woeful takings at the box office, and its drubbing at the hands of most critics (with a few exceptions).
There is a lot of Apple tech in this movie, surely a product placement thing, but it’s notable how well it’s aged compared to other tech of the era. This movie has too. De Palma’s movies of this period all operate at the super-luxe end of the scale. The images captured on celluloid just as it was about to be eclipsed by digital are some of the most lustrous you’ll ever see. Monsoon Wedding, Hero, The New World, Eyes Wide Shut, to name just a handful. You could just watch Femme Fatale for its pretty pictures alone.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023