Robin’s Underrated Gems: Femme Fatale (2002)

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In past editions of “Robin’s Underrated Gems”, I’ve never hesitated to express my support for the work of Brian De Palma, covering films such as Blow Out, Body Double, Casualties of War and Sisters. The director has been referred to by some as a copycat artist who found success by ripping off Hitchcock and other famous filmmakers. Of course, I’ve always held the opinion that De Palma a master of borrowing other people’s ideas and building upon them with his own unique style. However, the new millennium has not been kind to De Palma, who has delivered such lacklustre flops as The Black Dahlia, Redacted and Mission to Mars, a disastrous attempt at sci-fi which I still consider to be his worst film. De Palma also directed Femme Fatale, where he attempted his own unique spin on the film noir genre. It turned out to be another box office flop for the director and may be his most divisive effort. Some of De Palma’s fans (such as Roger Ebert) loved the film’s stylishness and audacity while others found the whole effort to be a laughable mess. While De Palma may have shied away from Hitchcockian thrillers during the second half of his career, Femme Fatale represented a return to the type of thriller which helped put him on the map and I consider it to be a tremendously entertaining piece of cinema. You sense that it’s going to be something unique when the trailer presents the entire film on fast forward before asking the audience if they “get it”.

It’s only appropriate that the trailer and the film both open with footage from the 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity. If you’re not familiar with the term “femme fatale”, it is defined as “a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations”. One of the most popular femme fatales in all of fiction is Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity, who is able to seduce Fred McMurray’s law-abiding insurance agent into murdering her husband, so that she can collect his insurance. During the opening titles of Femme Fatale, the femme fatale of this particular story, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), is watching Double Indemnity on television in her hotel suite, which we soon learn is overlooking the Cannes Film Festival in Paris. Laure is about to participate in an elaborate heist which involves stealing valuable diamonds from an outfit being worn by Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), a supermodel attending one of the premieres. Laure’s accomplices for the job are Racine (Edouard Montrouge) and a deadly figure known only as “Black Tie” (Eriq Ebouaney). In true De Palma form, the events are presented in an unconventional fashion as a lesbian love scene becomes the backdrop of the heist. Laure’s plan involves seducing Veronica in the bathroom while Black Tie secretly steals the diamonds from her outfit and replaces them with fakes.

Of course, things don’t go completely as planned as Laure decides to double-cross her accomplices by taking the diamonds for herself and leaving them behind to take the fall. Through ridiculously contrived circumstances, Laure winds up being mistaken for a doppelganger named Lily, a Parisian woman who recently lost her husband and child in an accident. After Laure steals Lily’s identity, she crosses paths with a wealthy American named Bruce Hewitt Watts (Peter Coyote). The story then cuts to seven years later where Watts has now become the American ambassador to France and Laure is his wife. A local paparazzo named Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) wants to capture a photograph of the ambassador’s notoriously reclusive wife, but soon becomes involved with Laure in a brand new scheme which could make them rich. Meanwhile, Laure’s old accomplices from the heist want revenge on her and make their big return in a very stylish scene which you will look at much differently by the time the film ends.

If the plot synopsis of Femme Fatale sounds ridiculous… well, it is! The storyline is absolutely built on far-fetched contrivances and coincidences, but this seems to be the director’s intention. There are times when you suspect that Femme Fatale was meant to be a campy parody of the film noir genre since De Palma is practically winking at the audience about how much his storyline bludgeons credibility. However, the movie is assembled together with such style and craftsmanship that you could still watch it as a straightforward thriller and enjoy it. Throughout his career, De Palma has often loved to shoot long, elaborate set pieces containing very little dialogue, using stylish editing, fancy camera work, and a dramatic orchestral score to establish mood and tension. The opening heist sequence at Cannes is masterfully constructed and even though the scenario is completely absurd, it still manages to generate genuine suspense and a feeling of exhilaration over watching a cinematic craftsman at work. This is one of the only times that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has ever had to carry her own movie and while she isn’t the greatest actress in the world, she’s ideally cast as the title character. Amusingly enough, Romijn-Stamos is actually more convincing during the scenes where she’s impersonating her French doppelganger, as she comes across far more woodenly when playing her normal American self. But the actress perfectly personifies the type of temptress who can convince an ordinary man to do criminal things, as you can see during this ultra-sexy dance sequence.

The most controversial element of Femme Fatale is a surprise twist which occurs late in the film. Even De Palma himself admitted that this twist was probably going to alienate half of his audience. Indeed, the twist is a very unique one in that it may have you screaming “bullshit” at the screen when it initially happens, yet once the end credits have started rolling, you’ll be praising its brilliance. When the twist occurred during my first viewing of Femme Fatale, I spent the next several minutes believing that De Palma had pretty much ruined his movie, but I soon found myself delighted by how cleverly his trickery paid off at the end. The twist also helps lend the film to repeat viewings as you’ll definitely be looking for all the clues and pieces of foreshadowing you missed the first time around. Overall, Femme Fatale is quite daring and audacious and loves to go in directions you don’t expect, so it’s probably not too surprising that it didn’t find much of audience. This is a film which will appeal more to cinephiles and De Palma fans than casual viewers, but it’s still a criminally underrated, visually striking piece of work. In the end, there are no better two words to describe Femme Fatale than “pure cinema”.

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