The romance of Brian De Palma

bdp1The following revisit of a favourite film and director is offered for the Brian De Palma Blogathon being hosted by Ratnakar Sadasyula at his site, Seetimaar – Diary of a Movie Lover from 11 to 21 September to celebrate the great filmmaker’s birthday

It is also offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog, in the hope that it might just turn him on to this super-smart and supremely quirky writer-director, who just turned 75.

Friends and family in the 1970s all told me about this amazing movie, Carrie, which they said had the best, scariest ending ever – and that was the first thing I knew about writer-director Brian De Palma, who celebrated his 75th birthday at the weekend. And I suspect for many that was the beginning – he is a director who is often remembered for specific sequences or shock effects, much like Hitchcock. But the first film of his I actually saw was Obsession, released the same year as Carrie, and also a box office hit, albeit a much smaller one. I caught it on TV in the early 1980s and was initially intrigued for its connections to Vertigo, which at the time I had not been able to see as it had been out of distribution for the best part of 15 years. I was immediately sucked in by the magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann, the widescreen images created by Vilmos Zsigmond and the strange, dreamlike quality of the story that De Palma had fashioned with screenwriter Paul Schrader. But it was the essential romance of the story that really attracted me – not so much the central love story, but the love affair with storytelling and the power of cinema to transport its audience physically, emotionally and intellectually. I’ve not been the same boy ever since. So, happy birthday Mr De Palma and time to reminisce …

DePalma-Sisters

Okay, cards (and other assorted deadly implements) on the table – I am a huge fan of Brian De Palma, who is now, amazingly, entering his sixth decade as a writer and director, his earliest credit going 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 and since then he has made almost three dozen films in many genres, including musicals (Phantom of the Paradise), science fiction adventures (Mission to Mars), spy movies (Mission: Impossible), war films (Casualties of War) and several comedies, along with the horror, gangster films and thrillers for which he is generally best known. Hi most recent feature is the underrated Passion (2012) starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, though he is now the subject of a new documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, De Palma, which has been met with rave reviews (mostly). 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 (2002) one of his least heralded films of recent years, is also his boldest, most personal and most completely successful film – and also his most nakedly emotional and romantic. So I’m focusing on that film today, revisiting a post from several years ago (in case some of this seems  bit familiar – but then, that is a bit of a De Palma trait, isn’t it?)

DePalma-Passion

Like the more recent Passion, a clever look at boardroom politics and the narcissism of the PR trade, Femme Fatale is a supremely seductive thriller all about women. Part cine-literate film essay, part heist movie, it 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 – including herself. 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’ 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 own – and she is looking for just the right man to help her bring it off …

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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37 Responses to The romance of Brian De Palma

  1. De Palma certainly creates multilayered and complex pieces, doesn’t he, Sergio? And he’s quite good at nuanced characters, too, which I’ve always appreciated, especially in a thriller-like film. And yes, his films are challenging and well-scored. What’s not to like?

  2. realthog says:

    I’m surprised this was so poorly received at the box office. (I rarely pay much attention to commercial details like that!) When it first came out on DVD here I was told by my local Blockbuster manager that it was flying off the shelves — she herself thought it was The True Spiff.

    Me, the first time I saw it, I thought it had too much sex. (My wife fell around when I said this.) I mean, I can watch Rie Rasmussen without any clothes on for hours upon enraptured hours, but I felt the sex — especially the protracted episode in the pool hall — seriously distracted from the plot, which overall I adored. On second viewing, this aspect worried me very much less, and I’m not sure why. Maybe, since I was expecting them, I just switched off for the relevant sequences (like when the dreary saxophone music starts during an erotic thriller); I dunno. During that second viewing, I was converted to your and Roger Ebert’s point of view . . . although I’d give the movie four stars rather than five.

    • The scene in the pool hall is, on the surface, a bit uncomfortable making – I am very happy in my masculinity but one hates to feel exploited, especially if it is being done successful 🙂 Of course, given that De Palma stages it very much as a spectator sport, one knows that there is a lot of manipulation. One of the things that is being hidden is the dreamscape aspect as the man in the chair is the same actor who appeared earlier in a different role and the erotica is meant to make you not notice that … and of course make you think that Banderas is no longer in charge, which turns out not to be the case.

  3. Colin says:

    That’s a terrific bit of writing on both De Palma and this film.
    I like the film well enough, although I do need to revisit it as it’s been a while. I do agree that it is one to return to and in fact probably needs to be viewed a few times. Even by De Palma standards, the plot does fly off in outrageous directions, and i think this kind of explains why some (a lot?) of people were turned off by it initially.

    As for De Palma in general, we tend to focus on him as a thriller director, especially (and often disparagingly) as a Hitchcock wannabe. I think that’s both unfair and, as your post here points out, inaccurate since his output has been immensely varied over the years.

    • Thanks very much Colin – his use of dreams (and nightmares) increasingly seems to me the most important part of his approach, the narrative within the narrative, and stylistically he really does have as much in common with Antonioni as Hitchcock. He can seem heartless, but I find his work deeply romantic (obviously). Have you seen Passion? A bit long, but seriously underrated and the central set-piece is just breathtaking and the finale wonderfully baroque.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I watched it, I think, about two years ago. Again, I’d probably be better off going back and viewing it again to refresh my memory. Even so, I liked it too at the time, possibly better on first viewing than was the case with Femme Fatale.

        • I think what you say is quite right – his work tends to work better on a second viewing, often because there is just a lot going on and part of the enjoyment is deconstructing the complicated architecture. Thai sis not everyone’s idea of a good night out at the cinema however …

          • Colin says:

            And there we have the likely reason his more personal projects haven’t been as successful as they deserved to be.

          • But maybe in the home video age this is OK – certainly easier to be a nieche success in this day and age though of course he rarely makes small films …

          • Colin says:

            Oh, I think he’s definitely the kind of filmmaker whose work gains a more appreciative audience with the passage of time, and that’s aided very much by the ease of access we enjoy nowadays when it comes to home viewing.
            The only problem with this kind of slow-burn reaction to his work is the lack of immediate success can cause problems in getting the green light for backing subsequent projects.

          • One day I’ll do a post just on the films that he nearly got made – break your heart mate …

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Big thumbs up, Sergio. I, too, am a big of De Palma and FEMME FATALE fan. I never could understand the criticism he and this have received. The studio has marred several of his works over the years, as well (the Dahlia film for sure). Here’s hoping for FF blu ray and soon. Kudos my friend.

    • Thanks Michael, so glad we agree on this one. I hated not being able to see it at the cinema – if they ever revive it theatrically, I’ll be there like a shot! More likely, they will create a DCP from an HD master so will probably see it that way, but would love to see a good 35mm print!

  5. Sergio, this is, indeed, a superb piece on De Palma and his films. I know him for some of his entertaining movies, including SCARFACE, CASUALTIES OF WAR, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, THE UNTOUCHABLES and THE BLACK DAHLIA, but not so much for his directorial skills, if that makes any sense. I tend to watch films through a narrow prism, their finer nuances often lost on me. Thanks to your star-rated review, I’m putting FEMME FATALE on my “watch” list.

    • Thanks Prashant and I know exactly who you mean here – a lot of the directorial flourishes of design and construction are only even going to appeal to a very narrow band of viewers. My brother completely understands why I appreciate this, but just doesn’t care it. One the other hand, we all agree that CARRIE, THE UNTOUCHABLES and especially CARLOTA’S WAY are just absolutely terrific, near perfect entertainments.

      • Oh yes, CARLITO’S WAY too. I forgot that one, though I may have seen it a long time ago. I wonder if one might not compare De Palma with Scorsese, at least in terms of the intensity of their characters and the way certain scenes are shot/filmed.

        • They belong to that so-called ‘brat pack’ group of filmmakers, along with George Lucas and Spielberg, who really shook Hollywood up in the 1970s who revered classic Hollywood movies but also wanted to explore new topics in a new way. De Palma has stuck more resolutely to his independent roots than either Scorsese or Spielberg, and has been less constantly successful at the box office as a result. On the other hand, it probably is his ‘outsider’ sensibility that personally draws me in part to his work. But I agree, stylistically and thematically, they all have a huge amount in common. For instance, the 1991 remake of CAPE FEAR was originally going to be directed by Spielberg but then he passed to to Scorsese but it could just as easily have gone to De Palma.

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I like about half of his work. Have never seen this one. My daughter is a huge fan though and gave a talk on him a few weeks ago at the NYPL. She likes the operatic nature of his work most.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film, but I do not share your enthusiasm for it. I regard it as absurd. I can give at most 3 stars to it and I am more inclined to 2 stars.

    SPOILER ALERT

    The initial heist plan is itself absurd. Seducing Veronica, luring her to the bathroom stall, having prolonged lesbian sex with her, removing the jewels from her body and replacing with fake jewels ! Did the thieves really expect the plan to work ? Of course, the plan worked to a certain extent but only because Laure and Veronica were in collusion, which was not known to Black Tie and Racine.
    The film could have been regarded as a comedy caper if it had ended with Laure seemingly falling to her death after being thrown off the bridge by her accomplices. But, instead it all turns out to be a dream !
    Now even the dream sequence is flawed. If it was all a dream, then every scene should involve the dreamer Laure. But there are many scenes that do not involve her. How can this be ? How can she see what happens in her absence during the dream ?
    She is given a second chance and she decides to repent by following the good path. She prevents Lily from committing suicide and helps her. As a result, the destiny is altered. Seven years later, it is Veronica who is saved and instead Black Tie and Racine are killed. Karmic payoff ? However, what about the karmic debt for keeping and enjoying the loot ?

    • Hi Santosh, wellllll, I think a lot of viewers would completely agree with you. As for the initial heist, it is a bit OTT but in a fun and playful way and we are not meant to take it too seriously, though we are also supposed to assume that Laure didn;t just pick her up and that the Black Tie plan is meant to work because the two are already lovers, right? As for the representation of subjective states in an objective mode, what I would say, though, is unlike something like say TOTAL RECALL, where the interpretation that some give it that it is all a form of inception once the sits in the chair falls apart because of scenes involving third parties other than the dreamer, there is no suggestion here that Laure would not in fact be aware that she is dreaming while having a bath – she may in fact be enjoying the whole experience, just as we are! Rational and logical, it is not however, quite agree, but it is also very beautiful and poetic.

  8. John says:

    I see that I’ve read all your precious DePalma posts and commented on all my likes and dislikes about his work. So I won’t repeat myself. But I will ask this: will you ever write up OBSESSION or BLOW OUT, two films that you allude to repeatedly whenever you write about DePalma, with the second being hinted at the best of his Hitchcockian thrillers. I may need to track down FEMME FATALE for a re-viewing (I liked it a lot the first time around) and follow it up with BLOW OUT which I do think –despite it’s being “inspired” by BLOW UP– is the best of his thrillers.

    • Thanks John – I really will post on those, honest, as I am such a fan but I probably should try and explain why in more detail (and who could resist such a charming invitation 🙂 )

  9. John says:

    UGH! I meant to write “previous” in that comment above when describing the other DePalma posts. Damn fingers and keyboards!! Please don’t think I’m being snarky or Gollum-like. ;^)

  10. realthog says:

    I’ve now watched Passion, and would agree with you that it’s no mean movie — not top-tier DePalma, but not far below it. Rapace is always worth the price of entry, and I particularly enjoyed seeing McAdams not so much defy her “nice girl” stereotype as shatter it into a million pieces and then jump up and down on top of every last one of them.

  11. I’ve never seen FEMME FATALE, but I enjoyed reading this post about De Palma, Sergio. (WHEN are you going to do a book?) Have to say this movie sounds like something you’d have to be in the mood for. I’m not a big fan of this particular actress since she has always seemed to me to be more suited for commercials than movies – but I know I am in the minority on this one. At any rate, I might watch it one of these days just to see if maybe I can see what you see. I saw BLOW-OUT many years ago and have always been disappointed that I knew immediately who the maniac killer was. This is what happens when you’ve read mysteries all your life and you get to be as old as I am. HA!

    I wish you would write the definitive piece on my all time favorite thriller, DIVA. It is not Brian de Palma, but it might have been. I wrote about DIVA a while back, but I think I want to write about it again one of these days. It’s just a movie that has always haunted me. Do you like it as much as I do, Sergio? If not, then don’t write about it. 🙂 Only reason I mention it is that your enthusiasm for this movie reminds me of my own for DIVA.

  12. P.S. I am suddenly reminded that I also saw CARRIE, eons ago. Only watched it once. Didn’t need to see it again. It was pretty good. But the viciousness of the characters (not Carrie) repulsed me. I think I enjoyed Carrie’s murderous revenge a bit too much. Not a movie I’d care to see twice though the visuals were outstanding.

  13. tracybham says:

    I don’t know that much about Brian de Palma or his films, but this certainly was a nice piece on Femme Fatale. I have only seen Carrie and Mission Impossible (that I remember). Over all those decades there could be some I have forgotten.I am still a fan of Mission Impossible, after all these years. Carrie was too scary for me (but it was good).

  14. Pingback: Fall Back: Year of Bests – 2016 | It Rains... You Get Wet

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