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Femme Fatale (Brian DePalma) 2002


    Brian DePalmaís Femme Fatale is an odd, fascinating movie. Few films flirt so audaciously with genuine ideas only to present their most obvious pleasures in the superficial. Itís tough to decide if DePalma is incapable of a more in-depth probing of his subject matter here, which most prominently investigates the objectification and empowerment of women, or if heís simply not willing to do so in a typically didactic, speech-laden way.   There are a multitude of themes running throughout, most of which have surfaced in the directorís previous work, and most of them are conveyed mainly in visual terms with rhyming images and tracking shot connections. The opening scene, for example, links the Barbara Stanwyck character (quite arguably the prototype for the modern femme fatale) from the Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity with Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the filmís protagonist, creating a sexist, absurd audience expectation of her behavior that the rest of the film spends attempting to triumphantly brush off.


    After establishing the grounds for his thesis, DePalma, with his usual brazen bravado, allows us the fun of watching Laure test out the mold that Stanwyck has made. By hilariously parodying the overblown secret-agent antics of his own Mission: Impossible, he casts Laure into the suddenly stereotypical Laura Craft female action hero mode, pushing both her sexuality and capability for deception farther than any other director might dare. Powered by a dreamy, floating camera, lesbian wish-fulfillment, and more phallic symbolism than you can shake a stick at, the sequence is a hackneyed male fantasy cum reality through the magic of the movies. Itís the anachronistic Cannes 2001 setting (where East-West is oddly playing and the more appropriate choice of Mulholland Dr. oddly isnít) of this heist that most heavily clues the audience into the movieís other prime concern, which is an examination of the layers that exist, or donít, between fantasy and reality.  Even in this relatively inconsequential, but thrilling, opening sequence, he tests the audienceís ability to accept coincidence and contrivance as he crafts an intricate web of narrative event for Laure to steer herself through on the road to some sort of liberation.


    Since Femme Fatale presents Laureís moral discovery without betraying the rules of the suspense film, it never feels too earnest or cloying. Instead it comes off as a simultaneous celebration of the potential of the genre to thrill and a justification for what compels him to work in it. Throughout Femme Fatale, DePalma, per usual, references many other movies, but the nods that have the most impact are the allusions to his own work. The scene where Laure is followed to a hotel explicitly recalls a similar moment in his Body Double (itself reminiscent of Hitchcockís Rear Window). The split-screen technique used in several sequences, in which the camera is literally torn into two because itís equally interested in the voyeur and the subject of voyeurism, echoes his early film Sisters. A graphic, slow-motion impalement seems to have been lifted from his Raising Cain. The cumulative effect of these references when coupled with Laureís redemption through exploitation, turn the film into an exciting game of self-observation for DePalma. The movie leaves a strong impression that DePalma sees his willingness to deal with the issues in his films as a sort of cathartic release that keeps him from feeling compelled to explore them in reality. Filmmaking allows him to act out his wildest fantasies just as Laure is allowed to temporarily toy with the mantle of the femme fatale in this movie. Perhaps more than any film heís made up to this point, Femme Fatale is DePalmaís most humanistic defense of his body of work, but only a director with his unique obsessions and talents could make a statement of humanism thatís so provocative, sexy, and exciting.


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Jeremy Heilman