Written and directed by Brian De Palma
With Rebecca Ronjin-Stamos, Antonio Banderas and Peter Coyote
In America, “the French” are best known for their
(supposed and supposedly) misguided love of Jerry Lewis. It’s time to change
that stereotype: they love Brian De Palma even more. Ironically, De Palma’s
reputation in France rose around the time it fell in America. Early
‘80s films like DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT and SCARFACE
were either influential or critically lauded. Even if DRESSED TO KILL inspired
feminist protests and SCARFACE became notorious for its over-the-top violence,
they worked as provocations. (Countless gangsta rappers have sampled SCARFACE.)
SNAKE EYES and MISSION TO MARS inspired no protests and little praise
on the side of the ocean. Meanwhile, CAHIERS DU CINEMA called CARLITO’S WAY
the best film of the ‘90s. It’s no surprise that De Palma packed up
his bags and made France his new home.
Working with French producers has had an unusual effect on his work. More
than most films, FEMME FATALE seems particularly conscious about reaching
a worldwide audience. While Hollywood blockbusters are aimed at the largest
possible audience, they try to hide their seams. Europudding concoctions
like Tom Tykwer’s HEAVEN don’t bother. If you find something weird about
a film made in Italy by a German director from a Polish script starring American
and Australian actors in the lead roles...well, you’re probably not the target
audience. With FEMME FATALE, De Palma has moved his cinema just a little
further to French tastes. To a certain extent, that means he’s now making
Europudding too, but it also means that he’s moving closer to the arthouse.
The opening scene of FEMME FATALE projects images from Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE
INDEMNITY onto the body of anti-heroine Laure (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos). A
jewel thief, she arrives at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival to substitute glass
replicas for an actresses’ very expensive and very skimpy outfit. (Smut-rapper
Lil’ Kim might find it a bit too revealing.) Straight guys will be excited
to know that the two make out in a shower with a translucent door, while
Laure strips her. Double-crossing her partners, she heads back home with
the loot. After seven years pass, Laure has exchanged identities with a brunette
doppelganger and married the American ambassador to France (Peter Coyote).
Unfortunately, she’s publicly reminded of her past when photographer Nicholas
(Antonio Banderas) sells her picture - now that she’s a famous but notoriously
camera-shy woman - to a tabloid.
If this film sometimes resembles the kind of “erotic thriller” that
shows up on pay cable around 2 AM, it combines softcore porn with an equally
pornographic rapture of wealth and glamour. (Francophilia may be out of fashion
in America, but you’d never guess that from De Palma’s vision of that country.)
The portion set at a screening of Regis Warnier’s EAST/WEST in Cannes (although
the film was made in 1999) presents an E! Channel version of the festival:
a haven for supermodels, not an opportunity to see the premieres of Abbas
Kiarostami and Alexander Sokurov films. EAST/WEST is the perfect “art” film
for such an audience, which may be why de Palma interpolates its credits.
For most of its length, FEMME FATALE has little on its mind. De Palma has
fun with the mechanics of the thriller, but for the most part, he skillfully
runs through the genre’s motions. If tracking shots were a marker of emotion
for Max Ophüls and a matter of morality for Luc Moullet and Jean-Luc
Godard, they’re a source of excitement for de Palma. (He’s equally enthused
by pans and overhead shots.) They’re equally exciting for the spectator.
In any frame of mind, the jewel heist is a bravura piece of filmmaking,
set to composer Ryuchi Sakamoto’s rip-off Ravel’s BOLERO.
De Palma’s Customary Big Theme of voyeurism pops up here, but its significance
only really becomes apparent towards the end of the film. There’s the usual
sleaze, some of it sexist and homophobic. It’s not restricted to sex:
De Palma pans from a man pissing to another man holding a stun gun, then
showing the golden shower that follows. Most of the film’s voyeurs are men,
but in one key scene, Laure becomes one as well. However, the fear of photography
becomes key to a large chunk of the film: the entire plot of the middle third
is predicated on Laure’s fear of being photographed and anger at Nicholas
for having done so. De Palma likes to watch, but he also understands why
many people don’t like being watched. By the film’s end, he even makes a
point of the moral differences between voyeurism and intervention.
It’s very difficult to describe the finale of FEMME FATALE without giving
away spoilers. Suffice it to say that the film both takes a giant leap of
narrative ingenuity, forcing the audience to make sense out of a storyline
splintered into rhyming fragments, and develops a conscience. Without
it, FEMME FATALE would be little more than a (very entertaining)
formal exercise. He may be stuck in a symmetrical hall of mirrors (I’m
no De Palma expert, but I spotted references to CARRIE and SISTERS),
but that hall isn’t quite as far removed from reality as you might think.
Compared to MULHOLLAND DRIVE, which plays similar games with dreamtime
and manages to say something about Hollywood’s genuine exploitation of
women, De Palma isn’t doing much of anything. Compared to his previous self-plagiarizations,
he’s at least gesturing towards real ethical questions, while getting
his rocks off with some girl-girl action at the same time.