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
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.