Written and Directed by: Brian De Palma
Starring: Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas
It’s taken me years to come to terms with Brian De Palma. On one hand, I find him to be an incredible craftsman, undoubtedly an auteur, but there is no substance to his work. I could never figure out why so many thought so highly of him. I’m like that with Warhol’s work. I find it pretentious and superficial at best. A piece of canvas with a couple of piss stains on it is not a work of art; it’s a piece of canvas with a couple of piss stains on it. But I’m very aware of the possibility that I’m not looking at it right and that everyone else is correct in their assumptions of his work. I find Mark Rothko mesmerizing, while I’ve known people who’ve looked at his stuff and found it pointless. I guess the point that I’m clumsily trying to make is that not every artist has to reinvent the wheel; they only have to know how to get the wheel to move. De Palma can move a wheel. In fact, in Femme Fatale, he manages to get everything working: wheels, gears, heart rates, and imaginations. In a way, the film represents everything good about De Palma, while offering endless insight into the artist. We see all of his fears, desires, obsessions, and stylistic indulgences. In that sense, the film is a thing of beauty. If I have to make a reference to Hitchcock (I think De Palma does enough of that for all of us), I would say that this film is his Marnie: flawed, extremely entertaining, and absolutely vital to the understanding of where he is coming from as an artist.
In the convoluted excuse for a plotline, Romijn stars as a sexy and mysterious woman (is there any other kind?) who betrays her equally troublesome and mysterious cohorts and makes off with a batch of diamonds that she finagles from a floozy at the Cannes Film Festival. She flees the city, only to return seven years later as the wife of a very naïve Ambassador (Peter Coyote). After a while, she’s up to her old tricks again, seducing a sleazy and gullible photographer, played by Banderas with infectious coolness. Or is she? Or did she? Or has she? Whatever. Just sit back and take in the marvelous set pieces that De Palma has devised. He uses all his sorcery (absurd angles, split screens, freeze frames, wild point of view shots, excruciating slo-mo, etc.) to milk every drop of suspense that is humanly possible. If you can let your guard down and get the filmmakers wavelength, you’ll be mesmerized. I guarantee it.
While I’ll always praise De Palma’s skill, I can’t help but knock the acting in his films. The performers in his films either come across like pieces of furniture (The Black Dahlia) or they seem to confirm that the catering service could only provide cocaine, Pixie Sticks, and Mountain Dew for the duration of the shoot (Scarface). But Femme Fatale isn’t all that bad in the acting department. I’ve already mentioned Banderas, and Romijn is too forceful for my taste, but she looks good and she’s naked enough to overlook her thespian deficiencies.
If Femme Fatale is De Palma’s Marnie, Romijn makes a poor Tippi Hedren, but you could argue that she is exactly what De Palma wants and needs. She is willing and photogenic and completely unbelievable. But I don’t put in a De Palma film expecting realism. I’m not asking for The Battle of Algiers or Bicycle Thieves. All I want is to find an escape route from the everyday, and take a trip with a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. Femme Fatale provides just that, and I’m thankful for it. It is many ways the culmination of the career of an artist who has managed to stick to his guns and stay true to himself for four decades. That’s quite an accomplishment, no matter how you cut it. Especially in Hollywood.
Trailer: WARNING: This trailer literally gives away the entire film. Only watch it if you have a poor memory or have absolutely no interest in watching the film, and are therefore reading this post only out of pity.