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Days of De Palma (Part 16): Femme Fatale (2002)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!

Following Mr. De Palma’s brief excursion into big-budget sci-fi, his next film returned to him to more familiar ground of crime, mystery, beautiful dames and Hitchcockian double-twists.  I’d never seen Femme Fatale before this De Palma viewing project, and I was interested to see whether this film — whose title seemed to promise a classic sort of De Palma story — would satisfy.

Femme Fatale.cropped

Well, it does and it doesn’t.  There are some great delights in seeing Mr. De Palma return to this somewhat familiar ground, and there’s no question that Femme Fatale gives the master director plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff and demonstrate his extraordinary film-making skills.  But this film’s script just doesn’t have the sharpness of some of Mr. De Palma’s previous, stronger work.  The foundation upon which Mr. De Palma piles his cinematic bells and whistles is somewhat wobbly, and so while the film is fun and certainly held my interest, it doesn’t work as well as Mr. De Palma’s best films.

As the film opens, we see a beautiful, nude woman watching an old noir movie on TV.  In my review of Snake Eyes, I wrote about how it took me until the very end of the film before I realized that the loud, colorful, brash film that I had been watching was in fact a noir, and in that moment I finally understood the film that Mr. De Palma was making.  Here at the start of Femme Fatale, it’s as if Mr, De Palma wants to make sure his intentions are perfectly clear: this is a noir, OK?  Got it?  OK, I’ve got it!  And the beautiful image of a naked woman seen in a reflection is a classic De Palma image.  I love this opening.  I love how skillfully Mr. De Palma plays with the audience, making us wait quite a while before we actually are allowed to see the woman’s face or to hear her speak.  (This is smart, as Rebecca Romijn is competent but not exactly a master actress.  More on this later.)

I’ve noted in so many of these reviews of the films of Mr. De Palma the way he enjoys playing with the notions of watching.  Just as we are watching this movie, so too are so many De Palma characters seen watching others, often through TV or camera screens.  This theme continues to be present here in Femme Fatale.  We see Laure (Rebecca Romijn’s character) watching a noir movie on TV in the film’s opening shot, as I’d just discussed.  We see the cops watching the red carpet on multiple different TV screens.  In a carefully staged and timed scene, we see a guard block one screen from the other cops, but if we the viewer look closely we can still see the important detail of a figure moving across the roof.  In addition to those many moments involving TV or video screens, the film is also obsessed with cameras (see Antonio Banderas’ photographer character Nicolas, who spends a lot of the movie looking at Rebecca Romijn’s character, often through the lens of his camera) and with one character spying on another.

I love the heist opening.  I’m a sucker for a great on-screen con, and Mr. De Palma allows us to see every step of the plot unfold.  And, of course, there’s a nice dose of sex and nudity as we see Rebecca Romijn’s Laure hook up with the beautiful model in the bathroom.  Mr. De Palma’s last few films have aimed at a more mainstream, wider audience, and so the sex and nudity that so defined so much of his earlier work was absent.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’ve often argued in these reviews that I found a lot of the sex and nudity in Mr. De Palma’s earlier films to have been gratuitous and distracting.  But I can’t deny this bathroom hook-up scene is fun to watch.  (And while that early scene hints that Femme Fatale will be a return to Mr. De Palma’s sex-filled earlier work, there’s pretty much the only on-screen nudity that we see for the rest of the film.)

Mr. De Palma finds spots to use many of his usual fun cinematic tricks.  We get a great split-screen shot when Antonio Banderas’ photographer character Nicolas is introduced, as we see both Nicolas and another mysterious guy both watching Rebecca Romijn’s character standing in front of a church.  We get several classic De Palma P.O.V. shots over the course of the film: when Rebecca Romijn’s Laure walks through the hotel; when she wakes up in bed after being thrown off the balcony; and as she’s looking out from the closet where she has hidden.  And we also see Mr. De Palma’s split-focus device when we see Shiff (Gregg Henry) in the car and Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) on the bike as they talk on the phone; and also later when Nicolas and the bar-guy are watching Laure/Lily’s strip-tease.  I love how, at this point late in Mr. De Palma’s career, all of these cinematic devices have become his stylistic calling-card.  I enjoy looking out for these techniques as I watch each of his films, and I love how they are used to give his film’s a unique style and feel.

There is a lot to like about Femme Fatale.  I enjoy the film’s mind-bendy, Hitchcockian focus on doubles and mistaken identity.  There are some fantastic, extended sequences of suspense in the film, such as the slow-motion chase of the girl in camouflage across the Paris square, with the sound of her foot-steps louder than anything else on the sound-track.  I wrote above about the film’s obsession with watching and with screens and cameras.  This feels like classic De Palma.  In many ways, Femme Fatale feels like a distillation of many of the elements and themes that Mr. De Palma has been exploring for his entire career.  Even the title seems like a simplified statement!

But the film never quite all clicks into place.  There’s a lot of plot and suspense, and in particular I think the film’s first 30-45 minutes are terrific, but it doesn’t all come together in a satisfactory way.  The characters are very thin.  We never really get to know Rebecca Romijn’s Laure/Lily, nor Antonio Banderas’ Nicolas.  There is a lot of plot, and the characters all DO a lot of things, but the film is lacking a real exploration of these characters.  Rebecca Romijn is gorgeous but not a great actress.  She’s adequate but where a stronger performer might have been able to make this character sing, Ms. Romijn’s performance isn’t able to elevate this thinly-written character into something greater.  But I can’t really blame her too much, because I think Antonio Banderas IS a great actor, and he’s similarly unsuccessful.  (And boy oh boy is his fake gay accent, that he adopts at one point in the film, super-insulting!!  Wowsers, that was a mistake all around, fellas.)  I also have to note that I kept expecting for the shady character of the Ambassador’s head of security, Schiff (Gregg Henry) to go somewhere or be somehow involved in the film’s climax, but he totally dropped out of the story at the end, which was weird.

Even with all of those complaints, though, I would probably still have considered Femme Fatale to be a decent film were it not for the TERRIBLE, just outrageously bad ending.

SPOILERS here, folks, so if you’re not interested in my discussing the ending of this decade-old film, now’s the time to check out.

Still here?

Ok, this movie has one of the worst “it was all a dream” endings that I have ever seen.  After investing in this movie, we the audience get to the end and are told that pretty much none of what we saw mattered.  (And, to hammer home the point in sledgehammer, extra-obvious fashion, one of the characters ever references It’s a Wonderful Life in a line of dialogue!  Oy!)  Plus, there are all sorts of story problems with the ending.  I’d thought, from the opening, that Laure was a lesbian, but I guess Antonio Banderas’ suave charm overruled that, huh?  (OK, I guess you could argue that Laure’s lesbian hook-up at the beginning was just an act, as part of the heist, but still, this film’s ending smacks of a very old-fashioned sexual worldview.)  Then there’s the poor truck driver, whose life has been ruined — he thinks his carelessness killed the two guys!  He has no way of knowing they were bad guys.  I feel bad for him.  But the worst aspect of the ending is that it conflates two totally different previous scenes, and time-periods, into one!  The scene that had introduced Antonio Banderas’ character, in which he is looking through his camera and we see a blonde sitting at the table, came much earlier in the movie than the later scene of the murder of the girl wearing camouflage.  Those two scenes both took place in the same location, yes, (the Paris square) but at DIFFERENT time-periods.  And yet, the movie’s “trick” ending has both incidents taking place at the SAME moment.  This is such careless story-telling!

Sigh.

Femme Fatale is fun to watch as a De Palma fan, but it is shortchanged by its weaknesses.  Here again we see that Mr. De Palma is never at his best when he is hamstrung by a weak script.  In this case, HE wrote the script, so there is no one to blame but himself!  It’s interesting to realize, through this re-watch project, just how many of his film scripts Mr. De Palma wrote himself.  But unfortunately I don’t think he’s a great writer, and his scripts often lean into some of his worst instincts.  (I think Blow Out is the only film scripted by Mr. De Palma that I feel is truly great.)

Even with its weaknesses, I enjoyed Femme Fatale, but this is really one for the De Palma fans only.

I have only three more Brian De Palma films left to go!  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on The Black Dahlia…

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000).

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