Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale, the new

film from Brian De Palma, opens with the heist of a bra. This bra is not particularly

good at doing the sort of things bras are normally expected to do – support

the breasts, shield one’s nipples from prying eyes, that sort of thing –

but it is stunningly beautiful to look at and extremely impressive all the same.

Femme Fatale is really very similar. The actors can’t act, the plot

doesn’t make sense, and the trailer is enough to put anybody with a brain off

going to see it. But it’s still enough to send the most highbrow

of intellectuals off onto raptures about how watching this film is like reading

Hart Crane.

De Palma has the wonderful combination of possessing an acute visual intelligence

without having a pretentious bone in his body. So he’ll cobble together any

old script (Mission: Impossible, anyone?) because that side of filmmaking

doesn’t really interest him. He’ll also cast, as he does here, for looks rather

than acting chops: five of the seven leads have English as a second language,

two of them are professional models, and no one has ever considered Antonio

Banderas to be an actor of subtlety or range. Even the supporting cast is weak:

while there is no shortage of great French actors, Eriq Ebouaney and Edouard

Montoute aren’t. The latter is such a bad baddy that he can’t even convincingly

throw a hot babe off a hotel balcony.

It doesn’t take long for us to realise that the tissue-thin plot (heist, double-cross…

stop me if you’ve heard this before) is really only an excuse for De Palma to

set up little pieces of magic for us to be awed by. The eponymous lead (Rebecca

Romijn-Stamos) seduces the wearer of the aforementioned bra (Rie Rasmussen)

in a Cannes bathroom, full of frosted-glass doors against which Rasmussen’s

mind-blowing body can be pressed and through which it can be opaquely viewed.

When the heist goes wrong and the mastermind gets arrested in his blood-stained

tuxedo, the authorities feel no need to spring for a dry cleaner, with the picturesque

result that seven years later, upon his release, he’s left in exactly the same

outfit in what looks like the middle of the desert.

Where De Palma fails, however, is to create a great genre film. He starts off

with the highest of ambitions, announcing that here we’re going to see something

which will rival – or at least approach – Double Indemnity,

which is arguably the greatest film ever made. (I’m not sure I believe

that it’s the greatest film ever made, but I could certainly argue

that it is.) But it goes without saying that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is no Barbara

Stanwyck – and not just because one can act and theother can’t. Stanwyck

had a magnetic draw when on screen: you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Romijn-Stamos

has sex appeal, and a great body which De Palma loves to show off in as many

gratuitous ways as possible, but she doesn’t have the sense that she’s cold,

capable of anything, which is necessary for any great film noir. (And

you don’t need to be filming in 1944 to have it, either: Linda Fiorentino had

it 50 years later, in The Last Seduction.)

De Palma also doesn’t seem able to bring himself to create a truly dangerous heroine.

Romijn-Stamos’s character takes a few bold steps into noir territory,

but ultimately saves herself: there’s even a happy ending, I’m distressed

to say. The paparazzo-with-a-heart played by Banderas (a man who seemingly spends

seven years stuck on the same balcony, taking photographs of exactly the same

scene, and doing nothing else of note until Romijn-Stamos comes along) achieves

neither the nobility nor the undeserved end that are his film-historical due.

These aren’t weaknesses of script, they’re weaknesses of directorial vision

– especially considering that De Palma wrote this film himself.

That vision is great in individual scenes. The steadicam exiting the elevator

into the atrium of the Charles de Gaulle Sheraton; the camera, low down by the

ground, watching in secret past an overflowing fish tank as a distraught girl

places a loaded revolver to her head; Romijn-Stamos plunging naked, feet-first

and in slow-motion into the depths, lit from above as though in a Bill

Viola installation. But these moments never gel into a coherent whole: the

film is less than the sum of its parts.

It’s very clear that what De Palma was aiming for was some kind of grand vision,

made up of precisely such carefully-framed individual scenes. The person we

identify with more than anyone else in the movie is Banderas, and if he’s done

anything over those seven years, it’s create a huge Hockneyesque montage on

his wall, made up of individual shots taken over the years from the same balcony.

The finished product is a coherent artwork in its own right, with a moment of

transcendence standing out in the center from under a lowering sky. It’s also

the image that De Palma chooses to end his film on. We only wish that he, too,

had managed to create a well-structured forest from his finely-honed trees.

So go see this movie if you’re a Brian De Palma die-hard, or if you’re in the

mood for a masterclass in camera-slinging. Or go see this movie if, like me,

you’re simply in the mood for a diversion on a rainy Saturday afternoon. If

you don’t go in with high expectations, you won’t be disappointed.

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One Response to Femme Fatale

  1. Michelle says:

    Film makers should never hire a model to be the leading role in a blockbuster movie. Hire an actress. Rebecca has never been in a film before and to think she could actually act this part is ridiculous. I think we both talked about Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction – the actor/tress needs to make the viewer believe they are bad to the bone. Sharon Stone does that for me. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos does not for a minute.

    The film was bad – but at least Brian De Palma could have got the lead actress right for a little but of wicked fun… Russ Meyers would have done a bang up job.

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