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November 13, 2002

Moviegoing: "Femme Fatale"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich,

I was taken by surprise the other day when I turned to the movie pages and saw that Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale had opened. I knew the film was coming, but I don't pay much attention to the movie biz anymore. And there it was, a little ad announcing that the film was opening Wednesday. A little ad? A Wednesday opening? Is the movie company dumping the picture?

Well, they may be right to. I enjoyed the movie a lot and am happily making plans to see it a second time, but I'd be wary of recommending it to anyone who isn't a very particular kind of weirdo film buff. I'll try to spare you the full-scale review and cut semi-directly to what's most salient.

"Femme Fatale" is the first time in a long while that De Palma has made one of his Hitchcock-esque numbers; it's like an upscale, marble-ized version of "Dressed to Kill." As a routine movie, "Femme Fatale" is hardly worth discussing. There's a bit of a story (jewel heist, double-cross, impersonation, marriage to a tycoon, baddies who want their money back, etc.), but it's a patchwork , cut-and-paste thing, and the characters are just chess pieces. In conventional terms, not only does the film not work, it hardly seems to be trying.

Femme fatale Romijin-Stamos

What's gripping isn't the story, it's the filmmaking. The film is really a bunch of glittering, bravura sequences. I'm only guessing, but it's as though de Palma turned 60, bombed with "Mission to Mars" (which I also loved), moved to Paris, and said, Fuck it, I'm going to make movies only for the reasons that interest me. (Which makes sense. In my view, he only ever had the pulse of the mainstream audience for about five years -- and given that his temperament is basically an avant-garde one, it's a miracle he had it for that long.)

The film is a poem on the themes of beauty and danger. What it's really like is an avant garde bit of silent film poetry (with an extravagant Ryu Sakamoto musical score) from the days back when film was still finding its way. It's like "Napoleon" or "Menilmontant," or one of Rene Clair's early movies; it also reminds me of reading Hart Crane. Very experimental and '20s in feeling, in any case.

It's all about going into raptures about the potential of the medium. There are moments in his films when -- to a De Palma buff, anyway -- they seem about as aesthetically far-out as a movie can be. I write this being all-too-aware that his movies don't work for many people, conventionally or as poetry. I suppose if a movie of his like this one doesn't work for you it looks shrill or super-affected. Me, I enjoy the spectacle of this hyperintellectual film poet going bananas in the nursery room that is movie history. When he's inspired, his projects can take on a kind of dream logic, which this one most certainly does.

It's fascinating to note that some young people have become fiendishly passionate about his movies. There are excellent websites run by very young guys -- Directed by Brian De Palma, here, and De Palma a la Mod, here. Why do they get him? What do they see in his work? I suspect it has something to do with the multimedia, deconstructed nature of his movies, as well as their whirling eroticism.

Ms. Romijn-Stamos and Mr. Banderas

Some reviewers have been struck by the fact that the Rebecca Romijn-Stamos character is active -- she fucks men, they don't fuck her. A moment's aside: the press likes to argue about whether De Palma is PC or not PC. (I sometimes wonder if the reason the press is forever raising tired political questions is that they can't come up with anything else to say.) Me, I think the question couldn't be less relevant, that what De Palma does (and has always done) is toy with obsessions: film history, sex, geometry, locations, points of view, perception, ways of organizing and understanding space and dynamics, ways of seeing.

What strikes me as more important (and certainly more interesting) is the way De Palma looks at the character Romijn-Stamos plays. On the one hand, she's a rangy, magnificent American -- and no women in all previous history have grown to be quite this physically glorious. On another hand, she's crude, gauche, self-pleased, and off-putting. On the third hand, there are moments when she morphs into an icon of pure, stylized sexuality -- then to bust the spell apart with a great big horselaugh. (Romijn-Stamos is an adequate actress as it turns out, with a decent-enough voice. But what's really terrific about her is that she seems to have loved lending herself to such a bizarro project.)

De Palma seems fascinated by this combination of personas: offputting, seductive, dangerous -- I'm reminded of the way Vadim looked at Rebecca de Mornay in "And God Created Woman." If "Femme Fatale" has a subject in any conventional sense it's the enchanting / repellant aggressiveness of a certain kind of American girl.

But, this being De Palma, that theme is also metaphorical; he's talking about movies (and maybe America) too. They're big, crude, and vulgar, but boy can they sweep you up. You want to look away, but you can't look away. De Palma is musing over (by way of demonstrating) the way your love of the highest art and your experience of your very lowest impulses will wind up on the same page, provided only that you let them take you far enough. Stare at what infatuates you and the nature of it (and you) begins to alter. Funny things happen; space shifts; something in the cosmos cracks. Light bounces off of a window, and your world tilts on its axis.

There's very little intentional comedy in "Femme Fatale" -- De Palma's in a different phase than he was back in the giddy days of "Carrie" and "Dressed to Kill," both of which I giggled all the way through. By the way, have you ever read Tarantino speaking about De Palma? He's very smart: among other points, he argues that De Palma is one of the great makers of comedy of the last few decades.

But these days De Palma evidently isn't feeling wicked or impish; he isn't even terribly interested in the specifics of suspense, let alone in putting his work across in a mainstream way. What's most on his mind these days is beauty. De Palma clearly loves beautiful things, including women. He's fascinated by beauty, and by its power; some people simply have a powerful response to beauty, and De Palma is one of them.

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

And his main concern with "Femme Fatale" seems to have been to make it a beautiful thing. It moves in a very different way -- spring-loaded vs elegant -- but the imagery here is almost as classy and chic as Bertolucci's. (It's very a propos that what's at the center of the movie is an extravagant piece of jewelry.) I'd guess that, so far as movies go, style, movie history, and eroticism mean everything to De Palma now. Even when the action is at a complete halt, the score and the visuals are going quite mad. And that's what "Femme Fatale" is: an eroticized delirium of almost-abstract style.

I spent much of the movie blissed out. But you know what an odd one I am.

Very curious to know how you respond to the film.



posted by Michael at November 13, 2002


What a pleasure to read comment on film that can see beyond the moralizing narrative mind-set of most critical responses -- and an envious pleasure to read that remark about Hart Crane: exactly, what I've often obscurely felt when watching De Palma movies but never had the wit to express; a mind-blow-outing perspective. I wish that film were already on here (Frankfurt), I'm dying to see it.

Posted by: Martin Walker on January 7, 2003 12:46 PM

send to me eny photos

Posted by: albert on July 4, 2004 4:53 AM

This movie is amazing according to what my friends told me. I really think you should post a picture of the lesbo action in the movie!!!!

Posted by: Bassem on July 18, 2004 3:39 PM

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