Femme Fatale (2002) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

This supremely seductive thriller – part cine-literate film essay, part heist movie – offers the possibility of redemption for even the unlikeliest past offender, which seems entirely appropriate because Femme Fatale was a box office bomb, but it really does deserve a second chance; and then maybe even a third. In fact, it may even require it, given the many intertextual secrets that it contains (sometimes hidden in plain sight). A story of cross and double cross and thieves falling out, it starts with a jewel heist that goes wrong, then folds in a paparazzo looking for artistic recognition, and blends it all together through the cocktail shaker of a slinky, sexy dame from the wrong side of the tracks who lies to absolutely everyone – even to herself.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

At its considerable best, this film is a truly original neo-noir, one that despite several expected links to classical Hollywood cinema probably owes a lot more to the work of David Lynch. It is also unmistakably the work of one of Hollywood’s most distinctive and most controversial filmmakers – from start to finish, Brian de Palma’s naughty Parisian thriller is a postmodern delight.

Femme Fatale was rapturously greeted by such critics as Roger Ebert, who called it “… an exercise in superb style and craftsmanship” but was given short shrift by many others and it was given only a token theatrical release in the US and went straight to video in the UK (it did much better on the Continent). To some extent this is easy to understand as this is a real ‘movie movie’, clearly aimed at the film buff connoisseur, chock full of references to the director’s earlier films as well as homages to a variety of classic movies. Indeed the writer-director credit appears over a shot of a TV screening of Billy Wilder’s classic 1944 Film Noir Double Indemnity – albeit dubbed into French, as it is being viewed by our anti-heroine, who we can see vaguely reflected on the monitor, in a hotel room near the Croisette in Cannes.  This is certainly there to inform us that this will provide a look back to a classic genre, but with a decidedly post-modern sensibility. On its own though it is also an uncommonly elegant, witty and sexy heist movie. Featuring a diamond theft at the glamorous Cannes Film Festival, this is an adult thriller that will keep you guessing right up to its controversial end … but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

For what turns out to be a complex yet subtly orchestrated sequence shot, the titles lead into a long opening take lasting several minutes to introduce us to ‘Laure’ (Rebecca Romjin), though we never see her except from behind, and her partner in crime (the amazing Eriq Ebouaney who in the film is only ever known as ‘Black Tie’). Using coded language, they are planning a complex diamond robbery, though it is also clear that theirs is an ‘uneasy’ relationship after he slaps her and takes off with her passport. Eventually her face is revealed (from behind a camera, of course) as she and two others get in position to make off with a ridiculous diamond-encrusted gold bustier being worn by a starlet at the Festival. Laure distracts the girl when she goes to the ladies room, while her two partners set up a power failure to get away under the cover of darkness. But there are the inevitable betrayals as, to the strains of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s lush rendition of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ (referred to on the soundtrack as ‘Boleroish’), Laure makes off with the goods and Black Tie is shot and arrested. She flees to Paris looking to get a new passport, dons a black wig and attracts the unwelcome attention of Antonio Banderas’ paparazzo before being tracked down by one of her ex-confederates, who throws her off the balcony of the hotel where she has been hiding out. Miraculously she lands on something soft and even more miraculously, she is mistaken for a woman who looks just like her and whisked away by a middle aged couple and taken to a house so she can sleep things off.

While taking a bath, she sees the young woman (also played by Romjin), grieving for the tragic loss of her family, shoot herself. Laure decides to assume her identity and flee the country. Cut to several years later. Laure is now the wife of the US ambassador (Peter Coyote) but understandably wants to keep a low profile. But Banderas, as luck would have it, is hired to get a snap of her for the tabloids. This, when published, reawakens the interest of ‘Black Tie’, who is fresh out of prison and looking for vengeance. Banderas, a paparazzo with a conscience who is really a budding artist looking to get out of the tabloid racket, decides to track down this mysterious blonde and try and help her. But Laure is a true ‘Femme Fatale’, and has already set up a complex plan of her won – and she is looking for just the right man to help her bring it off …

Okay, cards on the table – I am a huge fan Brian de Palma’s films. Now entering his fifth decade as a writer and director (his earliest credit goes back to 1960; after making several shorts and documentaries, his first solo directing features were Murder A La Mod and Greetings, both released in 1968), he has just started shooting Passion in Berlin, starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams. Throughout a career with several major box office hits (Carrie (1976), The Untouchables (1987), Mission: Impossible (1996)) and one major financial dud (Bonfire of the Vanities (1991)), he has remained remarkably consistent in his fundamentally iconoclastic outlook. Seemingly happiest when either baiting the establishment in such counterculture comedies as Hi Mom (1970) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974) or rocking the boat with his sexually explicit Hitchcockian thrillers Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) and indulging in the drug-fueled operatic ultra-violence of Scarface (1983), he remains happiest acting as a provocateur both in terms of his content and his attention-drawing aesthetic sense of the baroque. It is just possible however that Femme Fatale, one of his least heralded films of recent years, is also both his boldest, most personal and most completely successful film – and also his most nakedly emotional and romantic.

I love this movie and I’m giving it five fedora tips out of five – here are five reasons why, in reverse order:

5. Intellectually challenging cinema should be fun – the director makes use of split screens, slow motion, dream sequences, really complex camera moves, long single takes without cuts and much more besides to provides a truly mesmerising cinematic experiences along with a little sex and a bit more nudity and very little in the way of violence.

4. Music – the playful score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, whether using up-to-date synths or riffing on Ravel’s evergreen ‘Bolero’, perfectly matches the film, making the soundtrack almost as distinctive as the visuals.

3. Waiting for the sky to clear – in the climax we see a photographer waiting for the clouds to move to take a photo of a wedding party. It sums up the approach of the film as de Palma orchestrates everything within an inch of its life to try to create a perfectly satisfying whole, just as Bardo the paparazzo tries to create a piece of art from hundreds of real-life stills in his mural (created by the director’s brother, Bart de Palma). Ultimately the whole climax turns on a small slant of reflected sunlight …

2. We all deserve a second chance – this is ultimately a story about redemption, and this seems to so right for a film that itself in desperately in need of some critical TLC and genuine re-evaluations. But don’t we all feel like that?

1. Because Romance is not dead – de Palma is often pilloried as a crass imitator of other, better, filmmakers, especially Hitchcock, and there are certainly nods to Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho here. But this is also a distinctive, personal and deeply romantic conception, in love with the syntax of film and its malleable properties, one that repays several viewings as we realise just how carefully layers of meaning have been crafted into the whole (just keep an eye on the clocks and on some strange activity involving the supporting cast members). On top is a valentine to Film Noir; beneath comes a critique of its conventions; and beneath that a celebration and a summation of cinema’s ability to synthesise so many art forms to create nuance and meaning in a new work. A stunning achievement, especially if you have a sense of humour.

The film also has a truly innovative trailer which speeds through the entire movie in a couple of minutes without really giving anything away and yet being completely in sync with the overall theme and ambition of the project.

DVD availability: Released fairly quickly on DVD (first in France and then elsewhere), shockingly this release is OOP in some territories, including the UK. It offers an excellent video and audio transfer and some decent extras courtesy of de Palma biographer and documentary filmmaker, Laurent Bouzerau. Get it while you can (and please can we now have it on Blu-ray?)

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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33 Responses to Femme Fatale (2002) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Todd Mason says:

    Please forgive me, Sergio…but I cannot abide de Palma’s work at its best, and this (with its playfulness and good fortune in having Romijn as its lead–let us always have Romijn? A pun for indulgent Anglophones) is his best I’ve managed to sit through. But I’ll leave this to you and Megan Abbott and Sara Gran, who are also died in the wool Palmates.

    • Well at least you managed to get through this one (and there should always be room for one more Romjin) – Fair enough Todd, and of course you are not alone! In the UK he is what we would term a ‘marmite’ figure (i.e. you either love him or hate him) though I always think that Carlito’s Way is maybe the one that manages to cross over. Ah well, I’ll just have to try and be a lot more persuasive with my next choice!

  2. Todd Mason says:

    Well, CARRIE is probably still his most-watched film…very fortunate in his casting there, too.

    Romijn as actress is not quite as hard to pin down as the spelling of her name, but she has a certain deceptive quality about her…she isn’t as flashily talented as her quasi-countrywoman/fellow model-turned-actress Famke Janssen, but she isn’t as simple a performer as she can be mistaken for (particularly when playing one-note roles such as Mystique).

    • I think you’re probably right there – apparently Uma Thurman was an early contender for the role, but Romjin is gret in it. And yet I still liked her even when she’s all in blue …

  3. idawson says:

    Hey Sergio,

    Well I tried to watch this several years ago and turned it off a few minutes later. I really wanted to give this one a chance. But I think I have an automatic response to almost all things dePalma. As someone who loves noir, it pains me that I was not able to get through this film. Maybe in a few years, eh.

    But I do agree that it came and went like a shot. So if you like the genre and dePalma in particular, it may be worth a try.

    • Hello Ida, thanks very much for comments :). I spent about 8 years trying to get my brother to watch it – and when he did, he said that he understood exactly why I liked it so much …

  4. idawson says:

    Hey Sergio

    My previously well-written [wink] comment vanished in the blogosphere so I will attempt to replicate it:
    Basically my point was I tried to watch this on cable a couple of years ago and almost immediately turned it off. As a fan of noir, I am saddened that I was not able to get into it. But I think I have a general aversion to nearly all things dePalma.

    I do not know what exactly turned me off but I could not get into it.

    Maybe I will give it another chance after reading your insight.

    • Hello again! Apologies for the messaging SNAFU, not sure what happened there. I am a big fan of formal cinema in the tradition of Antonioni and Hitchcock, so I was likely to be a fan of this movie. I do think that at its core it has a true romantic beating heart and deserves a second shot, though clearly if you didn’t enjoy the likes of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Raising Cain or Carlito’s Way then chances are you’re not going to think much of this one either! But some of the images it creates are really beautiful and quite haunting too …

  5. p881 says:

    I find DePalma uneven, or maybe troubling is a better word, and don’t think I have seen this.

    • Hi there – thanks for that. There is certainly a cool calculation to much of his work that seems to block off more straighforward aproached to his work – though he can also be weirdly earnest, as in Mission to Mars, which is too indebted to 2001 to make it on its own and suffers from a cliched ending. On the other hand, that film also has one of his finest and most sustained suspense sequences in the 20-minute section leading to the whole crex exiting the space craft. Inevitably he is more likely to be remembered for sequences rather than whole films, though I really think that the likes of Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and (hopefully) Femme Fatale will stand the test of time. Obsession is now available in a fine Blu-ray presentation and is well-worth rediscovering.

  6. Yvette says:

    I haven’t seen enough of Brian dePalma to know whether I am a fan or not, but I think probably not. I did see CARRIE once upon a time, but I’m not a fan of horror movies either.

    I do love it when someone writes so elegantly and passionately as you have done, Sergio, about a film that they love. Just for that alone, I will attempt to watch FEMME FATALE. A film, I must say, I’ve never heard of before.

    The only thing about Rebecca Romjin is that she looks as if Marie Windsor (or Jane Greer, for sure) could have kicked her butt. Literally.

    • Ouch (that was me feeling the pain on behalf or Rebecca’s spanking from the might Marie Windsor!). Honestly though, Romjin does a pretty good job playing two roles in this movie – and only one of them is hard of nails … If you haven’t seen de Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) then at least make sure you see that one – if it weren’t for the fact that is not in any way shape or form ‘forgotten’, I’d be rhapsodising about that film right here and now – wait a minute, come to think of it …

  7. I was caught in the avalanche of Bad Reviews for FEMME FATALE so I never saw it. Your fine review is motivating me to go out and find a copy. I’m with you: bring on the Blu-ray!

    • Cheers George – I really hope, as always, that it lives up to my hype! I do love it, which probably means I am not entirely to be trusted of course … be great to know what you make of it if you ever get hold of it. It is a beautifully shot film (the cameraman was Thierry Arbogast, the regular cameraman for Luc Besson who always shot shot ravishing looking movies as Horseman on the Roof and another Hitchcokian riff of great merit, L’Appartement)

  8. Colin says:

    That’s a very tantalizing write up Sergio. I’d consider myself a fan of de Plama yet there are gaps in my exposure to his work. For one reason or another I missed this when it came out; lukewarm reviews wouldn’t have been the reason but I don’t know what happened.
    Anyway, your piece has encouraged me to do something about it – I just scored a cheap copy of the movie on ebay.

    • That’s brilliant Colin, I really hope you like it. I’m a real de Palma diehard and in particular like the ones he has written himself such as Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Raising Cain (another critically mistreated film in my view). If you liked any of those, then I think you’ll be really impressed by Femme Fatale. Like fell movie brat Coppola, I remain impressed by his continuing willingness to experiment, especially compared with the more commercially orientated output of the more feted Scorsese and Spielberg.

      • Colin says:

        The movie certainly sounds like it’s right up my street. I’ll get back to you when I actually get round to seeing it.

        I don’t care what de Plama’s detactors say, I feel he has a great eye for startling images. His films may not always completely work but I’ve never come away from one without thinking that I’d seen some unique sequences. For me, it’s a bit like watching a Polanski movie – there will always be some aspect that elevates it above the mundane and the mainstream.

        • Quite right Colin and certainly he and Polanski both share a dark sensibility and a sense of humour as well (de Palma’s satiric intent isn’t always fully appreciated though Robin Wood certainly saw it – the scene in which Caine goes to visit Bobby’s psychiatrist in Dressed to Kill makes me laugh out loud every time I see it).

  9. John says:

    I liked this one. I’ve seen all of DePalma’s Hitchcock “homages” and enjoyed all of them, some more than others. Really some of them are shameless ripoffs (DRESSED TO KILL especially). BLOW OUT and SISTERS are two of my favorites and I can watch those over and over. But I utterly hate PHANTOM OF PARADISE. Yeech. Even with extremely watchable and talented Jessica Harper I couldn’t abide much of it and never found any of its satire funny at all. Noisy, unfunny, visually messy, the overuse of split screen… Most disturbing of all — seeing all those women drooling over and fondling that naked dwarf Paul Williams was enough to give me nightmares for weeks.

    I’ll have to do a re-viewing of some of the others like OBSESSION which left me wanting a bit more when I first saw it ages ago. Just saw CARRIE for the first time in a long time a back in February and was impressed with some framing and visual foreshadowing that I missed when I was a naive young’un who only watched horror movies for the shocks and thrills. FEMME FATALE and BODY DOUBLE seem like a good double feature (with their similar voyeuristic themes) one of these weekends when I’m homebound.

    • Hello John, thanks for that – ahh, another de Palma fan our there – excellent! Obsession was, I think, the first of his films that I caught up with and at the time, the early 80s probably when Vertigo was still unavailable, so I saw it first – and fell in love with the Bernard herrmann score and Vilmos Zsigmond’s visuals almost as much as the amazing performance from Genevieve Bujold. Then I saw Vertigo and for a long time didn’t feel the need to watch the de Palma again. But after watching it recently, especially on the new Blu-ray, I was genuinely impressed by the layers of meaning. In many ways it has a better plot than the Hitchcock movie and is certainly much more transgressive – the ending still rankles slightly in that is leaves a lot of things open, but it is beautifulyl done and the swirling camera moves and the score make it a very rapturous moment. It’s taken me a long time to really enjoy Body Double – for ages I got completly hung up on the way that is just seem to cobble together the plots of Rear Window and Vertigo and then added the rather sleazy porn industry backdrop. But now, when I watch it, I can finally see a lot more of the humour. I still prefer Raising Cain though, which is a very smart little movie, very craftily put together. As you say, its being able to go back and pick up things on the second viewing that makes his films so much more fun for the cinephile.

  10. Thanks for the review. Surprised I missed this film. I’m definitely going to check it out.

  11. Hi Sergio, I haven’t seen this film yet though I had many an occasion to. I was impressed with Brian de Palma’s SCARFACE and THE UNTOUCHABLES and especially the manner in which he moulds his actors into the characters they play. Particularly, old favourite Al Pacino in SCARFACE and CARLITO’s WAY. I wonder, though, why Palma gets as much flak as he does for his films. I think he’s a bloody good filmmaker. If you have reviewed SCARFACE before, I’d like to read it.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks for that. Glad to find another de Palma fan out there! I can understand why not everyone enjoys his partcular brand of self-concious post-modernity. So many of his films are overtly commenting on other films that it is too easy to label him as a mere imitator or rip-off artist. Blow Out may be his best film, but it is also clearly commenting on Antonioni’s Blow Up and Coppola’s The Conversation. Dressed to Kill, which after all begins and ends with a shower sequence, is clearly based on Psycho and is not disguising the fact; while Obsession expressly set out to provide a kind of post-feminist critical reposte to Vertigo. For many this can seem like a lack of originality – the fact that some of his most successful films have been remakes (and I’m thinking of Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) has tended to help label him as an unoriginal artist. And he does also bait audiences with provocative use of sex and violence to stir up controversy, which also tends to put him outside the mainstream a lot of the time. He can seem quite brutal and callous – and certainly the way that many even sympathetic characters get bumped off in films like Carrie can make it all a bit of a bitter pill. But to me he is a supremely intelligent and clever filmmaker, a master manipulator whose dreamlike works are truly unlike anybody else’s.

      Havnig just gone out of my way to praise him, weirdly enough Scarface, which may in terms of popular culture end up being the most significant of his works in terms of influence, is actually one of his few films that I don’t engage with particularly well. I tend to find it just too excessive, which of course is the point … I plan on buying the new Blu-ray edition and seeing if I can make a new stab at appreciating a film that many seem to love so much. I’ll get back to you when I do!

  12. Some great points here, Sergio! I am not too fussy about de Palma or any other director imitating others or not being original so long as they make good films. I have a simple take on movies: I watch; i either like or dislike them; I move on to the next. Often, if I like a particular film, I might see it again (I have seen the very polished THE UNTOUCHABLES more than once over the past two decades or so). I watch movies for their entertainment value and little else. Some films leave an impression, others don’t. About de Palma, you touched upon a couple of points I had in mind but didn’t quite know how to put them down here, mainly the kind of films he makes (“brutal and callous” and perhaps more unsympathetic than otherwise) and their influence on crime-obsessed violent films. Given Palma’s obsession with cops, drugs and gangsters, how would you compare him with Coppola and Scorsese?. He has been likened to both. Meanwhile, I see that no one has mentioned THE BLACK DAHLIA. I haven’t seen it yet but Palma’s got two unusual actors in the lead, Hartnett and Eckhart, who do seem like his kind of actors.

    • I suspect that the niche that de Palma has carved out for himself, which is more linked to genre cinema than that of some of his counterparts, may mean that he is ultimately seen as less significant than Coppola and Scorsese. I would argue that he is also potentially a more radical filmmaker than either of them in some respects, but there is an attraction towards coarser elements of sex and violence which may in the end mitigate against him – the constant return to the works of Hitchcock probably mean that this feeds into the popular perception. But I also think that Redacted, for all its low budget limitations, is powerful and woefully underrated and that Casualties of War, which is a very disturbing and disquieting film, also deserves a second look. I have found most of Scorsese’s most recent output disappointing, while de Palma and to an extent Scorsese still seem willing to innovate, which I really admire. They are all great filmmakers in my book. The Black Dahlia is a great example of neo-noir and, in the sequence surrounding the discovery of the body and the shoot out, is another example of de Palma’s technical mastery. It does suffer from trying to compress all the book into 2 hours of screentime, but I thought the linsk to the silent movie and the screen test sequences, largely added by de Palma I believe, are tremendously impressive. On the other hand, while Hartnett is quite good, it does tend to show up his comparative lack of experience as a serious actor in some scenes and a lot of people didn’t like the casting of such young actors. I think scene by scene it works very well and has some haunting images – it is easy thoigh to see why it did less well than the more conventional LA Confidential (a film I none the less like too) as it is much tougher on the characters and has a harsher, less sentimental streak.

  13. Colin says:

    Glad to see The Black dahlia come up for discussion. It’s a film which I like a lot even though, like a lot of de Palma’s work, it doesn’t completely satisfy. There’s some highly impressive editing and imagery on view even if the whole suffers from compression.

    On the casting, especially that of Hartnett: I’ll admit that when I first saw the film I too thought that Hartnett was too young for the role. Having seen it a few times since, I now feel that the issue is not Hartnett’s age but the fact that he looks too young and fresh. What I mean is that in classic era film noir we had guys like Robert Mitchum playing similar parts at similarly young ages. The difference is that those actors looked like they had seen more of life (and indeed they probably had) and had some of the corners knocked off them. Someone like Hartnett simply doesn’t appear to have that jaded quality which anyone with any exposure to classic noir has grown familiar with. Ultimately, I think that may say more about the changing eras and our own expectations than it does about perceived flaws in the performances of the actors.

    • Hi Colin – yes, you are probably right. I think Eckhart and Swank do better in their roles because they suggest an inner toughness that coems from experience; Scarlett Johansson, while ravishing, is plainly too young for the role – Hartnett is meant to be a bit of a patsy and that scene towards the end when he questions her and realises what he should have known all along is actually quite brave in that he really plays him like a sap and a fool. This pays off in the finale – and as you say, some really haunting imagery along with the customary fine set-pieces. It;s very brief, but there’s that great sequence in the house where they have pinned all the evidence accumulated on the walls about the Dahlia and as they peel away the photos and reports you can start to see the photo pf the victim underneath, though she is never fully revealed until the end in a shot that thus accumulates considerably power. And it has that fabulous production number with KD Lang too! Definitely another under-appreciated Brian de Palma movie – I am definitely starting to see a pattern emerge here …

      • Colin says:

        Swank and Eckhart certainly have a more lived-in look about them. I also think that Johansson is the biggest weak link in the casting.

        • She’s so drop dead gorgeous, as the role requires, that I wanted to forgive as much as possible, but she can’t really carry it off, can she? I got to see this as the cinema I’m glad to say, unlike Femme Fatale, which I would love to see on the big screen (where it should be seen).

          • Colin says:

            Yep, she’s stunning to look at. But, this movie needed gritty people, slightly damaged people to make it hang together – that’s pretty much true of all noir in my opinion.

            I was lucky enough to catch in the cinema on release too – it remains the ideal way to see movies.

          • You could argue that the idea of Noir aimed at younger audiences is potentially quite an intriguing notion, but I don’t think that this was the movie to do that since it is set ‘in period’ and makes few concessions to those unaware of the form and the 40s milieu (I would argue Brick is a film that comes closest – as a neo-noir- to that ‘YA Nioir’ idea, whatever its merit might be). I haven’t read the book since it came out and I went through an appropriately feverish phase reading Ellroy’s books, but maybe it is time to revisit this movie …

  14. Pingback: The Passion of Brian De Palma | Tipping My Fedora

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