Another of Brian De Palma’s swirling, gliding art-house exploitation films with a tempestuous relationship with the female form, Femme Fatale is perhaps Brian De Palma’s most swaggering embracement and censure of the genre-cinema project. De Palma’s film derives oxygen from cinema history – Euro-thrillers and film noirs most of all – much as his protagonist Laurie (Rebecca Romijn) draws energy from the stereotypes of women in classic cinema: using them for air only to douse them in a ferocious breath of fire.
De Palma’s style is serpentine and semi-conscious, lurid but not lucid, less as a statement of its inability to conquer its themes than as a poetic investigation of a dreamy cinema that bamboozles most critics, which is likely why the film’s reputation was muted upon its release. That, and the film’s gloriously inappropriate demeanor, with De Palma in his best bad-tempered and lascivious monocle-popping-out-in-disbelief mode. But, rather than flowing forth on the spring well of narrative, as respectable types want, De Palma emphasizes feeling, accentuates mood, and emblazons milieu, like a tone poem to sex and the surface-level image rather than a narrative proper.
The opening heist, a pockmark on the Cannes Film Festival, is both an irony and a statement of sympathy from a director whose sensibilities are devoutly more European than American. Absconding to a new identity after that heist, Laurie returns years later and meets Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), a photographer struggling to get his mojo back and something of a stand-in for De Palma, a man who is tempted by and more or less abused by Romijn’s moxie, her agency invigorated by the stereotypes and surface level identities of femme fatales she knows how to use to her advantage. She turns male fetishes and one-note stigmas about woman into fuel for her own empowerment, an agency De Palma dares to back up by treating her as a serious protagonist with a crisis in her eyes, rather than simply meat for a man to wallow away his nihilism. At a basic level, Femme Fatale is a film about the social contingency of female identity, trading on various constructed identities in a world that more or less denounces the worth of women on their own terms, forcing them to adapt to others’ terms.
De Palma foregrounds the theme as early as the introductory image, a spellbinding superimposition of Romijn’s face onto a TV screen where Wilder’s Double Indemnity is making the rounds, the camera displacing her identity through media, screen, and image before denying her any sort of fixed self throughout the one-take scene where she is abused not only by a male character but the camera, which refuses to shoot her from the front and empathize with her initially. However, as time goes by, the camera’s complicity in the character’s tenuous self is ultimately called into question. In breaking down the images that the opening reaffirms, the film proposes the introductory scene is an attempt to conform to noir stylings that deny women three dimensional roles when society would rather pin them to one-dimensional, sexual surfaces.
De Palma’s camera, always a new front for sensuality and an interrogation of it, is never impoverished for these surfaces. It emphasizes how surface images – social opinions about individuals – construct the self even as they deny it. Indeed, before we’ve seen Romijn’s face full-on, our sense of her is multifaceted, a confrontation of empowered woman of action (she’s robbing the Cannes Film Festival, after all) and an aesthetic sensualist who binds, like De Palma, appearance and utility in an outfit that is both man-killer and tactical outfit. From there, however, the film explores her attempt to break down the surface stereotypes society and genre cinema has cursed her with in an attempt to discover her own identity, perhaps by using and abusing those very types, turning femme fatale – society’s opinion of her – into an outlet for her self-expression.
Most of the inverted surfaces are stylistic though, like when De Palma recasts what seems like a heist into a comic inversion of De Palma’s opening from Mission Impossible, complete with Capital-M Muzak on the soundtrack. Or when a steamy lesbian romp shaded through translucent glass appears more ghostly than sensual. The translucent bathroom surface in this scene both obfuscates what is really going on and transforms it by presenting it as something else to viewers. De Palma, cheeky devil, would rather just imbibe in the senses and tease them by transforming and molting them. Even as a study in sequences, the shots provoke, like the camera panning down from the translucent pane glass to reveal a man watching the women, until we note that his true gaze is the gold Romijn is dropping to the floor from the other woman’s dress, unbeknownst to her (the man is Romijn’s partner). Another shot of a guard witnessing trouble on his phone shoots him from above, pulling out his phone like it’s his member ready to instigate another kind of trouble. Again, the surfaces not only masquerade our real intentions but hint at them and even ask us to question them.
The film is orchestrated like a diamond, for one, but the sheer charisma of De Palma’s punchy, spasmodic interjections – shots of prowling cats violating the sexual rampage and furthering the sublime chaos – never allow the piece to become overly-curated; depth aside, Femme Fatale is a remarkable exercise in self-arousal, a gift from De Palma to himself and his cast and crew, all seemingly in on the joke and brazenly turning cinema into primal play (see Banderas, pomping his circumstance and zestfully pile diving onto his role as a lecherous De Palma surrogate). The way De Palma continues to morph melodrama into an alternate dream realm where people discover their true selves continues to be his trick, but he’s always discovering new sleights of hand to get there. Throughout, Romijn’s character is refracted across multiple identities and in various parts of the screen, splitting her soul and invoking her multitudinous, always incomplete, ever molting demeanor. If it is ultimately a mess of a film (and the images are more satisfyingly wily than infused with straight-ahead genius), then it kindles the mess into a rampage for the better. Somehow, it is never less than cheeky and supercilious but never once smug, perhaps because De Palma’s visual money is where his provocateur mouth is.