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Brian De Palma: Femme Fatale

Posted on the 02 February 2012 by Jake Cole @notjustmovies
Brian De Palma: Femme FataleAfter the reception of Mission to Mars took some of the wind out of De Palma's sails, Femme Fatale represented a more modestly scaled return to the director's well of head-trip thrillers. But fresh off the (perceived) defeat of his least ironic bid for a winsomely broad-audience movie, De Palma came up with what may be his densest, most complex work. Taking a page from the Body Double-esque travesty he trotted out every few years since that 1984 masterpiece to remind everyone who's boss, Femme Fatale is defiantly nonsensical and deliberately self-annihilating. Like all the rest of the pure style exercises the director's made since Body Double, Femme Fatale doesn't reach the same heights of anarchic frenzy, but De Palma makes a key choice to move away from mere stylistic flourishes to try to make his flashy neo-noir say something.
Femme Fatale follows Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn), who embodies the titular concept to such a pure degree that the first we see of her is a reflection of her face in a television as she watches one of the quintessential femme fatale movies, Double Indemnity. By the end of the extended and wild opening, she's already seduced a woman and double-crossed her gang of dangerous criminals, and she'll only prove more manipulative from there. But even as De Palma brings out the distilled essence of that character type's destructive properties, he also contextualizes it with equally outsized depictions of the misogyny that surrounds such a character. The head of the criminals she works with at the start (Eriq Ebouaney) slaps her before their mission even begins, and I don't think he ever once so much as refers to Laure throughout the film without using the term "bitch." De Palma, who fielded accusations of misogyny throughout the '80s, makes Black Tie's vulgar harassments so unpleasant that he makes clear his disdain for the masculine brutality that drives so many of his characters. De Palma the offense-baiting provocateur this is not.
But I'm already afraid I've given off the impression that the film isn't a riot, which it is from the start. Echoing the vicious feed-hand-biting of Body Double, the opening sequence, a diamond heist set, of all places, at the Cannes Film Festival, is a deliciously wry slash at the movie industry. Even the most prestigious film gala in the world is not immune to the ouroboric culture of tabloids and calculated buzz: the diamonds targeted by the thieves are worn in an absurd metal contrapion that barely warps around a starlet's supple frame in such a way as to make Princess Leia's metal bikini look like a chador in comparison. Vaguely resembling the director's data theft sequence in Mission: Impossible, this setpiece is outlandishly directed with the usual focus on surveillance and divided frames, but none of the tricks is as amusing as that ridiculous diamond getup. It's telling that the film being shown at the festival is utterly incidental to everything happening around it, and that would be as true if there were no heist to focus the audience. For everyone at the ceremony, all eyes are on Veronica and her only occasionally covered nipples. So, while the rest of the film may not go after the industry with the same rabid mania as Body Double, it nevertheless expands that movie's range of attack to slam the foreign market that has been equally corrupted by promotional interests and empty succès de scandale.
After Laure double-crosses her accomplices, she hides out in Belleville until she can get a fake passport to escape the country. She cannot stay hidden for long, though, and De Palma slowly introduces a wrinkle into the proceedings with a split-screen segment that juxtaposes two very different kinds of surveillance of a wigged Laure. On the left, we see Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), a sometimes-paparazzo who just seems to be interested by seeing the disguised Laure meeting with a contact wearing fashionable camouflage. On the right are the betrayed criminals who've tracked her down. The two contrasting shots reveal different angles, observations and emotional tones. Though Nicolas peers down from above in a more threatening position, his POV is playful, tracking that which catches his eye. It is the more ground-level view of Black Tie's second-in-command that exudes the feeling of being watched, of being plotted.
Laure retreats into the church nearby, but De Palma maintains the divided screen showcasing two watchers. What changes is who's doing the watching. The right half of the screen continues to show the perspective of a jilted accomplice, albeit a different one. But now the left half belongs to an old French couple who look back at Laure with wide-eyed recognition. Between Nicolas' mysterious curiosity and this pair's even stranger response to Laure, De Palma generates confused, ambiguous moods that only become more disorienting and suggestive when placed against the more simplistic feelings of vengeance and lingering hatred of the criminals. As my blogging buddy Ryan Kelly put it in his own fantastic review of the film, "It's all a matter of perspective."
Ryan rightly pinpoints the film as a moral examination of noir, and he references the hazy, equally nostalgic-yet-critical Mulholland Dr. in De Palma's staging of an extended dream sequence and the way that it dramatically alters the thematic focus of the film. Here, the central divide between dream and reality (or dream and other dream) is the suicide of Laure's doppelganger, the troubled daughter of a French couple who take Laure in after mistaking her for their child. By placing the film on such a dramatic crux, De Palma also invites comparisons to Run Lola Run, an action film in which the protagonist is given do-overs save herself and others. In a sense, Femme Fatale is a more emotive, insightful take on Raising Cain, with its constantly upheaved nightmares deliberately shattering any connection to the narrative. A similar postmodern slyness is at work here, but the abandon of Cain and Body Double is replaced by a nuanced take on a common genre element.
De Palma ingeniously finds a way to make Laure adhere to all the manipulative and sexual traits of a femme fatale while undermining the type's context. The aforementioned misogyny of Black Tie's gang does not necessarily justify Laure's behavior, but it does at least provide a contrast for the usual condemnation of the duplicitous jezebel as an agent of feminine evil. But aggressive sexism is not the only male target of De Palma's lens. Later in the film, when Nicolas stumbles into an insane situation in which he sees himself as Laure's deliverer, she gets one over on him too. De Palma does not spare the condescending, faux-chivalrous knight in shining armor from mockery, undercutting the traditionally acceptable position of a man placing a woman in a position of weakness for the purpose of "saving" her. Ryan links this situation, in which "the woman is the one in charge and the man is powerless," to De Palma's larger canon, but this is powerful even for De Palma; I can't think of an example where he emasculated his male character so incisively.
Romijn handles the role magnificently, suddenly leaping into a double life as the dearly departed Lily and subtly bringing her old self back to light when Nicolas comes back into her life as a different kind of male obstacle. Her toothy smile looks almost bestial at times, sadistic glee crossing her face when she succeeds in getting one over on another man. Her handling of Brado, incessantly revealing her superior planning just when he thinks he's won. But Banderas himself is multifaceted (he even gets to play a double life of his own in a hilarious scene), and Nicholas is cleverer than he seems. If he still finds himself constantly thwarted by Laure/Lily's wiles, the photographer nevertheless is the only man resilient enough to consistently return for more. If De Palma does not let Nicolas off the hook for his presumptuousness, nor does he seek to destroy the man with the same zeal as Black Tie's band of vicious misogynists. There is a willingness to forgive and start anew wholly absent from the director's early, more freeform days.
That new mindset informs one of the most beautiful second chances in cinema, a narrative mulligan that uses the reflexive, even absurdist nature of the story's structure to stage a purely moral reset. I don't know that I agree with Ryan regarding his thoughts on the film's treatment of "fate." I would say that the recurrence of images and events owes more to De Palma's delight in mirror imagery, though the film's final shot certainly supports the idea that, while we can choose our own paths, every possible outcome is at least somewhat guided. But the choices made by Laure after the third act upheaval seem to me more a rebellion against that fate, Laure confronting not only the pre-ordained order of events but her own existential trap. The final shot speaks more to the dream logic of the film, but even if this is all a strictly ordered exercise in style, its redemptive final moments place it among the most moving and intelligent of De Palma's films, the perfect marriage of his deconstructive style with the flecks of deep Romantic maturity that informs his best late work.

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