Skip to main content

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale

(SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Femme Fatale opens with protagonist Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watching Double Indemnity, before embarking on a heist directed by several brutalist accomplices, Black Tie (Eriq Ebouaney) and Racine (Edouard Montoute). That movie reference, combined with the title, informs us the director is very much occupying a lush movie fantasy world, only underlined by the diamond heist taking place at the Cannes Film Festival.

And the opening twenty minutes find the director coming up with a typically De Palma-esque piece of sleazy suspense: the heist executed as a seduction, with Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), sporting the precious gems, pressed against an opaque cubicle wall as the hidden Black Tie exchanges the items for fakes (quite how this is planned out, is unclear; the liaison was presumably planned with Veronica as Laure’s pre-existing lover, but that doesn’t tell us how Veronica ensured she’d be wearing the jewellery). It’s as sustained a piece of bravura filmmaking as only De Palma can deliver, and duly impresses.

Then, however, the picture changes gear, as Laure double-crosses her associates and winds up fleeing the country, only to return seven years later under an assumed identity, married to Peter Coyote’s ambassador. Which is exactly when Black Tie is released from prison. Very conveniently. Almost as if… Lest we’re persuaded events are following a dream logic – because, as we eventually discover, the majority of what follows is a dream, within the context of De Palma’s fictional reality – it’s actually a premonition. One borrowing from the likes of Sliding Doors, It’s A Wonderful Life and Run Lola Run for alternate timeline choices.

De Palma earlier threw in, in absurdly Hitchcockian, Vertigo-influenced – always with the Vertigo – manner, a doppelganger for Laure in the form of Lily, who despondently blows her brains out, so giving Laure an opportunity for a new identity and life; she’s in Lily’s bath tub when Lily returns home, and observes the event. Come the conclusion, Laure awakes, still in the tub, and this time prevents Lily from pulling the trigger, advising her to get on the flight to hook up with Peter Coyote. We see at the end that the villains are indeed on her trail (again seven years later), but this time they are killed themselves, impaled on some handy truck spikes… So has Lily been put on a magazine cover, identifying “her” as a target this time? And why, if Laure paid heed to her dream, would she be anywhere near the place things went so wrong “last time”?

Essentially, it’s an uber-trickster choice, the kind of thing that would legitimately infuriate a viewer, although that isn’t so much my problem with Femme Fatale (it did make me wonder, though; if Laure had gone ahead as before, how much of her dream’s footsteps would she tread). The director telegraphs his conceit with movie poster Déjà Vue adorning hoardings. No, the problem is the director’s title character.

De Palma “wanted a heroine who would be funny, sexy and deliciously cruel, one who would arouse strong feelings in the audience”. Except, with Romjin-Stamos’ underpowered performance, all you really take away is the cruel, after the initial sympathy for escaping oppressors. De Palma doesn’t help matters any with her inscrutable motivation (what is the extent of her relationship with Veronica? Does she care for Coyote? Presumably not, if she shoots him dead at the drop of a hat. How does she even know she needs to frame pap photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas)? Is she just assuming Black Tie and Racine will catch up with her?) We might suggest this is her ruthless dream self, and as such, ascribing sympathetic feelings is irrelevant, but if you’re taking that approach, it’s all too easy to advance to the next step, which is broad indifference.

Another actress might have imbued De Palma’s rather empty canvas with some degree of personality (both Uma Thurman and J-Lo were considered), but without that, Laure is little more than ornamental, the director taking great pleasure in offering exquisite tableaus of Laure in various states of revealing outfits or lack thereof. De Palma loves shooting Romjin-Stamos, but from that POV he’d might as well have cast Rasmussen, whom he loves shooting even more. It’s easy to see why he jumped at the chance of casting her, but the objectified character isn’t usually the protagonist in his movies. There needs to be more flesh on her bones, even to make her work as the silhouetted classic noir femme fatale he has here.

Banderas is clearly set up from the opening movie cue as a chump Fred MacMurray type, but if Laure is one-dimensional, Nicolas Bardo is too peripheral to become an effective dupe (“This world’s hell and you’re nothing but a fucking patsy”), and too plain dumb to elicit sympathy. Bardo seems more like a Craig Wasson in Body Double than your typical Banderas ­– which may explain why his wife persuaded him to take it, and he persuaded De Palma to teach him directing in return – and he never really feels like a comfortable fit for the character (Jean Reno was apparently in the running). The result is that, without strong counterbalances to the De Palma style in terms of performance, Femme Fatale is too thin (Coyote is barely in it, the same for Greg Henry, while Thierry Fremont indulges overplaying as a ham police inspector).

Stylistically, De Palma’s on form, then, although the Parisian setting, even with Luc Besson DP Thierry Arbogast aboard, is an insufficiently heightened space for his dream narrative. There’s too much real world there, and while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is effectively playful (and Ravel influenced) in the opening sections, it lacks strong identity as Femme Fatale progresses. If anything, distilling a De Palma down to its technical virtuosity, without the other departments no more than serviceably in place, shows how much, no matter how auteurish he identifiably is, he needs an effective support structure to make hay.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.