Thursday, April 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.23: Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 84 (A-)

Brian De Palma has always had an openly contemptuous relationship with Hollywood, and after the back-to-back financial and critical failures Snake Eyes and the perversely underrated Mission to Mars, De Palma left. For his next film, the director found financing in France, a nation more attuned to his skewed wavelength, and paid tribute to the nation with a Euro-centric version of his gloriously trashy thrillers. As with many De Palma films, 2002’s Femme Fatale plays with American genre conventions while doubling as critiques of those conventions. Femme Fatale happens to be even more film-centric than previous efforts, but it feels appropriate, considering that the birth of auteur theory came from some French film critics who went on to be filmmakers themselves.

Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn, then still Romijn-Stamos) double-crosses two of her accomplices after a complicated diamond heist. She’s on the run, but she catches a lucky break when she’s mistaken for a Parisian woman named Lily (also Romijn), who disappeared shortly after the death of her husband and daughter. Laure assumes Lily’s identity shortly after the real Lily commits suicide, goes to America, and marries the American Ambassador to France (Peter Coyote). Years later, paparazzo Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) is hired to get a picture of the Ambassador’s reclusive wife. Laure/Lily starts toying with Bardo and uses him to steal millions from her husband in a fake kidnapping plot. When the picture is displayed all throughout France, however, Laure’s old accomplices come looking for revenge.

Femme Fatale received mixed reviews from American critics (although Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece) before it found a well-deserved cult following, but even those critics would have a hard time disputing the awe-inspiring opening heist, one of the most playful set-pieces in De Palma’s filmography. The French loved De Palma, and he used that to his advantage by setting the diamond heist in the middle of the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a bravura sequence, honestly his best set-piece since the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way, that displays everything De Palma does well.

De Palma sets up the stakes early  on- Film Festival, gorgeous model wearing a bustier made of gold and diamonds, inside man on the Festival security team- in order to go all out on his obsessions and favorite film tricks. There’s magnificent tracking shots and use of split-diopter to show where everyone is in relation to each other and give a great sense of the Festival area. There’s a strong, voyeuristic sensibility as everyone who’s in on the heist A. watches what’s happening to get what they want, and B. mislead the Cannes security team. The fact that Laure seduces the model in order to get the jewel bustier off of her plays into the director’s sense of voyeuristic sensuality, and the fact that the model is in on the heist and just playing along with Laure betrays a sense of exhibitionism that so often pairs with voyeurism- they’re being watched, but they know who’s watching, so they hold the cards. De Palma and the cast play it up to hilariously brazen levels of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and sexuality to the point where the two are making love in a glass bathroom stall. When De Palma needs to get violent at the end of the heist, the violence really hits while still being viscerally exciting.

There’s plenty of film references in the opening heist, from the Cannes setting to the pictures of Juliette Binoche and Michael Haneke in the background to the use of the French film East-West as a distraction from the main event. Distractions abound- one of the accomplices talks about “bait and switch” without realizing that he’s about to fall for a bait-and-switch himself…and that the audience is going to fall for another bait-and-switch…that only turns out to be another bait-and-switch. Femme Fatale’s opening has a Brechtian quality that’s apparent throughout De Palma’s filmography. It’s all framework to study how the movies work, but De Palma keeps the pace moving so quickly and the excitement at such high levels that he makes the filmed film criticism outright jubilant. To top things off, it’s all set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s fabulous score, which has its own Brechtian quality- it sounds so much like Ravel’s “Bolero” that it’s literally titled “Bolerish”.

Femme Fatale is most famous for that opening sequence, but the rest of the film is loaded with riches as well. De Palma no longer has to hide his stylistic flourishes within the recesses of Hollywood blockbusters, so he has excuse to go all-out. The director uses long takes and tracking shots to emphasize the particularly emotional moments of the film, such as Lily’s suicide. The director’s use of split-screen to emphasize two angles- often who’s watching and who’s being watched- is particularly masterful in conveying the thrills and dangers of voyeurism. When Bardo snaps a picture of a none-too-pleased Laure, he unknowingly photographs a woman who’s about to be attacked by old accomplices, only to follow her again years later. Bardo follows Laure, but the other side of the screen shows him being followed.

Voyeurism plays into nearly every De Palma film, and Femme Fatale is no exception. Aside from the heist and paparazzi scenes, Femme Fatale features several sequences of characters following each other, be it for information, revenge, or sabotage. Laure’s ex-accomplices follow her and make an attempt on her life. Bardo follows “Lily” to find out more about her, but at the same time, he’s being watched by “Lily’s” security team. Lily’s suicide scene, meanwhile, has a creepy feeling of seeing something we’re not supposed to see behind closed doors. De Palma implicates the audience in all of this- we often know what’s going to happen shortly before it does, but with the exception of the true players, the characters are completely clueless, and the feeling of helplessness they feel watching each other die carries over to us.

Because it’s a De Palma film, Femme Fatale also contains scenes in which violence, sexuality, and voyeurism all tie in together, like when Laure pretends to be an abused housewife in order to put one over on the voyeuristic Bardo. Better still is a terrific striptease scene- Laure has blackmailed Bardo into a kidnapping scheme, but she’s having trouble getting him to go through with it. She then lures some poor dopey French guy in with a striptease that’s more for Bardo (and the audience) than for the other guy (a split-diopter shot shows the French guy reacting in the foreground, but we’re paying attention to Banderas’ character in the background). It’s a bout of exhibitionism to make Bardo jealous, and it works- he flips out on the other guy, wails on him, and the two have sex before going off to rip off her husband. In De Palma’s world, sex is power, and the ability to control the voyeuristic and the violent is more power. That Bardo thinks he’s the one playing Laure (as a way to clear his name) is an added bonus- he’s a sucker who thinks he’s a player.

Above all else, though Femme Fatale is about the movies. De Palma was always one to stack his films with references and homages to other films (and sometimes even his own previous works), but even his previous films can’t hold a candle to this movie obsessed genre exercise. De Palma tips the audience off to where his head is at from the beginning- the film is called Femme Fatale, for goodness sake, and it opens with Romijn’s character watching Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity, the prototypical femme fatale, on television. The character is reminiscent of plenty of femme fatales of films past- Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and even the more recent Sharon Stone in Basic Instict. Uma Thurman was originally cast, and no doubt she would have been perfect. Romijn is sometimes not up to par with what the part calls for: many De Palma films features characters “acting” for others, but they’re usually populated with actors and actresses more capable of pulling it off (Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill, for example). Romijn has trouble distinguishing the difference between intentionally off line-readings and line-readings that are just off. Whenever she gets speeches, she bungles at least a line or two. But that’s only a hindrance a few times. Mostly she’s having a blast playing the iciest of icy blondes- someone who loves being bad- and that’s more than enough.

Bardo, meanwhile, is modeled after Fred MacMurray’s classic movie patsy from Double Indemnity. Banderas is more attuned to what the part needs- a dumb character who doesn’t think he’s dumb. Early scenes show Bardo trying to pull one over on Laure in a hilariously unconvincing camp act- there’s no way anyone is going to buy this, and that’s the point. He’s all too easy for Laure to jerk around, and that’s part of the fun.

There’s plenty of other references to past noirs, as well as references to De Palma’s famous influence, Alfred Hitchcock, in numerous scenes of voyeurism and following that parallel Rear Window and Vertigo. But De Palma uses Femme Fatale best as a wonderfully entertaining , self-referential experiment. It carries obsessions with doubles, like in Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double. The striptease scene is a throwback to Melanie Griffith’s striptease/masturbation scene in Body Double (side note: Griffith recommended her husband Banderas for the part to De Palma). The voyeuristic scenes are deliberate recreations of De Palma’s past scenes of obsession, all with an even more winks and nudges than usual. And then, in true De Palma fashion, he pulls the rug out from under us.


It’s not surprising that many people would be frustrated that it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s really just another level of artifice (plus a tribute to David Lynch’s own self-referential film from the previous year, Mulholland Dr.). De Palma gives several clues throughout the film in a Brechtian fashion that becomes more visible as time goes on- the “bait and switch” line refers not only to the heist, but to what we’re going to watch for the better part of the film’s running time. Early before the dream starts, a character yells “stop dreaming, this isn’t a game”; at the end of the dream, he yells “wake up, bitch, before you die”. When De Palma does a match cut to swirling plane engine, it’s an acknowledgement that we’re now through the looking glass.

That doesn’t even begin to cover the clues De Palma spreads throughout the film. We see everyone we’re about to see in the dream right before it starts, most notably the annoying paparazzi guy…who becomes the patsy in the dream. There’s a recurring image of overflowing water, all while Laure’s having a dream while taking a bath. According to De Palma, the three recurring fears in dreams are “falling, ‘I did something bad’, and ‘bad people are coming for me’”. He incorporates all of those into this dream. When Laure gets thrown off a bridge near the end, the deliberate recreation of a fall earlier in the film is a final clue as to what’s about to happen. The fear that bad people are coming for Laure ties into the fear of her ex-accomplices. 

As for “I did something bad”? Laure’s double-cross might by a dirty trick, but the other bad guys are far nastier. In reality, she’s not nearly as bad as she is in the dream (although dream-Laure certainly enjoys it). De Palma argued that “noir is stylized, dreamlike, and fatalistic”, and he uses the dream sequence in Femme Fatale as a noir film that’s watched by both the audience and the main character. As an added bonus, Laure gets a chance to avoid the mistakes that movie/dream-Laure made and do right by the suicidal Lily, pointing her on the path of a happy life with Peter Coyote’s loving ambassador. At the end of the day, there is a sense of morality and justice in Femme Fatale, right up to a final sequence that sets everything right, plays to all the voyeurs watching (especially the audience), and brings the meta-Mulholland Dr. exercise full circle when real-life Laure and Bardo meet under more amiable circumstances. “Have we met?” “Only in my dreams.”

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