Of all the directors associated with the suspense/horror genres, few generate anything like the kind of division of opinion that Brian de Palma does. To his haters, he’s a hack, making movies that are poor shadows of other director’s greatest moments. Personally, I feel that this point of view is actually a huge disservice to one of the most visually aware filmmakers working in the American mainstream today. His films are filled with the kind of deliriously visual, grandly conceived & breathtakingly executed set pieces many lesser directors would kill for – scenes such as the central drill murder in Body Double, or the intricate dream-bluffing in Raising Cain take no small amount of flair & skill to pull off. Sure, he does (quite shamelessly) borrow things from some of the greatest films ever made, but each time he re-invigorates it with his own unique personality & vision, making it fit tonally & visually with the films surrounding them in an astonishingly assured manner. OK, so there’s a pram bouncing down steps in Battleship Potemkin, but how this image is fitted into the context of it’s appearance in The Untouchables is so radically different that to label it as simply a lazy rip-off is unfathomable.
Still, even as a de Palma fan it’s been hard not to feel that, like so many of the director’s who made their name in the ‘70s, his new films simply weren’t quite living up to expectations. Having said that, I do personally feel that Mission: Impossible & Snake Eyes are both rather underrated, and rather better than their reputations would have you believe. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to be able to report that Femme Fatale – his first original script since Raising Cain, despite limping out with barely a whimper of promotion, is easily his finest since Carlito’s Way, & indeed probably his best since Scarface. Like Raising Cain, there’s some pleasing games played with dreams, reality, & fantasy, and it also borrows that famous shot from Tenebrae – although either I’ve been watching the wrong films, or there is rather less borrowing than you might expect from a de Palma suspense film. In some ways, this is almost de Palma’s Vertigo, in that the director has full creative control, & uses his familiar suspense techniques to work to an end purpose rather different to previous suspense films – and it was released to an undeservingly “mixed” reception. Whilst it can’t quite scale the heights of greatness that the Hitchcock film does, it’s nevertheless a fascinating film which demands repeated viewing.
Some previous de Palma films have opened with film-within-film sequences of pretty poor horror efforts, alongside which the film proper looks like a masterpiece. It says something of his confidence here that Femme Fatale opens with a clip of Double Indemnity, with Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) reflected in the TV image. The first time we see her face properly, she has a mouth full of a near-naked French supermodel, because this is a Brian de Palma film, & that’s blatantly the best way to steal a hoard of diamonds. But that’s still to come, as a guy enters her hotel room & switches the TV off, talking in what seems like some kind of code, something about torpedoes, snakes, wetsuits & glasses. Immediately the audience is utterly disorientated, although the meaning of that obscure speech slowly becomes clear over the next 15 minutes. Before they leave, he warns her “Stop dreaming bitch, this isn’t a game tonight”. The film however, is very much a game though, with the characters constantly playing mind games with each other, & de Palma having a ball playing with his audience.
And with that short, disorientating opening, the curtain opens on the first major sequence, which is actually quite separate from the main bulk of the film, whilst very much informing the events that occur in it. This is the jaw-dropping diamond heist sequence, set during the screening of “East-West” at the Cannes film festival. Immediately de Palma is having fun with images within images, gliding POV shots, slow motion, cutting between the key action in a number of different locations with a minimum of dialogue, just an mesmerising blend of visuals & music. Although some may be put off by the extreme similarities of the music in this scene to Ravel’s Bolero, I personally find it to be utterly delicious, making the heist like a dance, & giving the film a wonderfully classy sheen. Even though it’s not as tense as, say the computer vault heist in M:I, this sequence is entirely captivating & I couldn’t tear my eyes off the screen. Following this, the action switches to Paris, where the rest of the film occurs.
Probably the thing I love most about Femme Fatale is it’s deliriously visual nature. There are some amazing shots (tracks, rotates, POV, split screen, breathtaking slo-mo) in this film that few American directors would have either the balls or the patience to achieve. The film unfolds with an almost free form, stream of consciousness feel, particularly with the use of the camera, lending it a wonderfully immersive feel which I can relax into, & simply wallow in the atmosphere. Indeed, it seems as though about half of the film plays without dialogue (although I haven’t timed it), with de Palma choosing to tell the story purely by his flamboyant visuals, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s fine score, & some neat sound design. Why have dialogue when the images say everything that needs to be said? He is aided in this by the gorgeous cinematography of Luc Besson’s regular photographer Thierry Arbogast, who gives the film a hypnotic look, full of crisp, cold, light colours – everywhere is white or pale blue. The one sequence where the look changes is the bar scene, which is filled with rich, vibrant reds, greens & yellows – tellingly this is really the first scene where Laure is truly being herself. Particularly impressive is the way de Palma shoots the fight here – not just flashy style, we’re actually watching the most interesting thing in the scene.
There are plenty of key images that continually recur, notably of water (often running) – something usually associated with the feminine psyche apparently – and of circular motion in everything from the camera motion & the Bolero-esque music to aircraft engines. Such recurring ideas – along with all the foreshadowing & one particular major revelation about what’s actually happening (a love it or hate it moment, I’m afraid – I’m with the former) make this a film which gains from repeated viewing.
The film also gains from some pretty strong performances. It’s always nice to see de Palma regular Gregg Henry, Peter Coyote is eminently watchable, & the French actors who play the rest of the gang are particularly strong. Antonio Banderas (appearing at the apparent insistence of his wife Melanie Griffith, pleasingly seemingly at ease with de Palma’s use of her in Body Double) is excellent in a secondary role, reconfirming my opinion of him as ranking alongside Johnny Depp as one of the most consistently interesting & risk-taking actors working in mainstream Hollywood. His real life disliking of paparazzos gives his role a particular extra frisson. But this is really Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’s film. She undergoes a remarkable series of transformations as Laure, and not only is each variation suitable convincing, but we can also believe that they are all just performances by the same character. Oh, & she does an unfeasibly hot strip dance routine in her underwear too, although whilst de Palma is one of those directors often disparaged for perceived misogyny, it’s great to see here a very strong female role who is anything but a victim.
There are some weaknesses in Femme Fatale, notably that what it really lacks is a strong emotional involvement – it’s perhaps a little hard to really care too much about the characters. Weirdly, even though that’s one of the first things I look for in a film, I don’t think it affects the film negatively – there’s more than enough here to keep me totally immersed in the film & it’s probably like bemoaning the lack of character development in Alien – it doesn’t really need it. Mainstream audiences could well be put off my the lengthy sequences with minimal dialogue, or the fact that there are a few scenes (appropriately) played in French with subtitles – but frankly they can go & watch Maid in Manhattan for all I care. Probably the biggest problem will be that major revelation, which will certainly divide viewers reactions to the film. But I love it, & feel that Femme Fatale is a terrific achievement, one of those rare films that I find I like more & more the more I think about. It’s a fascinating, sexy, & hypnotically beautiful film with a delicious conclusion that fully restores any slightly wavering faith in de Palma’s visionary talent.
The US R1/NTSC DVD from Warners is a pretty decent affair, with A/V presentation as good as you’d expect – English or French Dolby 5.1, & 16x9 enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen. There are some decent extras but a word of warning – DO NOT WATCH THE EXTRAS BEFORE VIEWING THE FILM, as they reveal pretty much everything that you should try not to know before going in. With that one proviso, you get 3 interesting featurettes (totalling around 40 minutes) with some nice behind the scenes footage & some pretty interesting interviews with the key contributors. There’s also a montage sequence of the various image changes the main character undergoes during the film, plus the great French trailer (basically the entire film sped up!), & a rather average American trailer (perhaps suggesting why the film wasn’t a big commercial success).