Femme Fatale (2002)
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I can tell the film opens with a heist, probably one of the most erotic ones out there. Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is the one who goes away with a very expensive artifact betraying a whole lot of people. This event is what drives her the rest of the movie, but in what way I can not reveal. I can say that we move forward to seven years later and that Laure has changed her identity, more by mistake than on purpose. Another important thing I can tell you is that we meet a photographer named Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas). He takes a picture of Laure while she is still Laure and he is the one who takes a picture of her seven years later, a photo that could spoil everything for her.
I should stop talking about the story. You have to see it for yourself, collecting clues and try to make something out of it. I love a movie like this. 'Memento', 'Mulholland Dr.' and 'Donnie Darko' are other examples. Maybe you can figure them out, if that is the filmmakers intention, maybe you can not. But it is not so much the conclusion I enjoy, it is the ride that brings us there. De Palma does it in a terrific way with a lot of love for the movies.
Femme Fatale sees De Palma returning to his forte: the suspense thriller. It is a welcome return considering his recent fare have seen him straying to more mainstream efforts - Mission to Mars, Mission: Impossible - that were shells of his virtuoso films of the late 70s and early 80s.
The film leads off with a stunning 20-minute Jewel heist sequence that takes place during the Cannes film festival of 2001. Completely bereft of dialogue, a la Topkapi, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's character has the enviable task of lifting a diamond dress from Rie Rasmussun in a bathroom encounter. His first original screenplay in 10 years, De Palma writes a tightly-plotted tale that certainly does not lead the audience by the hand, and the resulting twists it provides will allow different perspectives on the film's events with repeat viewings.
Antonio Banderas - usually lost without cause if not working with Robert Rodriguez - does what he needs to do with efficiency; Romijn-Stamos, the Femme Fatale of the title, provides the eye candy. The acting is not top drawer, but it does not need to be: we're here to see an auteur in his element: De Palma delivers. Cinema is more than a stage with a camera - De Palma uses his camera and cinema technique to brilliant effect. Huge swooping camera movements, split-screen, slow motion sequences, no dialogue and an enveloping orchestral score; De Palma's signature is prevalent. And that is good: a director should never be an autonomous entity, happy to turn out derivative drivel that get the masses in and out - directors for hire are too commonplace in Hollywood today - and that is something that De Palma could never be accused of.
Femme Fatale is a great example of a director working in a genre he loves and understands, and given the freedom to create. Total cinema? Its smell is sure intoxicating. Welcome back, Mr. De Palma.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
We have to believe that the guys planning the heist at the beginning of this film are willing to risk a huge amount of money, not to mention their own personal safety, on the premise that a female photographer is absolutely certain to be able to lure a complete stranger into a toilet stall for a round of hot lesbian sex. Now it turns out at the end of the film that the stranger isn't a total stranger after all - but this is a big surprise to the guys who planned the heist. They actually planned the heist based on the premis that their photographer would absolutely, without doubt, be able to lure a stranger into a toilet stall during a film premiere.
How stupid is that????
And don't tell me I shouldn't expect logic because it's all a dream. That wasn't part of the dream. And here's another moment that wasn't part of the dream. We learn at the end that the woman lured into the toilet stall kept the real diamonds, but told the police they were the fake subsitutes. You think the police wouldn't want to examine whatever she had for clues?????
Sorry, I can't turn my brain off -and this was an IDIOTIC film.
The plot revolves around an alluring seductress, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who leads a life of crime, but leaves it abruptly and unintentionally when circumstances give her a new lease on life as a respectable married woman. All's well, till her identity is revealed when a two-bit paparazzi, played by Antonio Banderas, brings her past and present together again, making for an explosive interplay of human character and dramatic plot twists.
I confess that the above plotline is grossly oversimplified, but I stop short of apologizing for it, because the plot itself is the least important aspect of `Femme Fatale.' Logistics are loose at best, but as the final scenes play out, the plot seems relatively unimportant compared to the much stronger elements of the film. The movie blends styles ranging from French independent films' European use of female personas and erotic sensuality, to American cult genres, such as Pulp Fiction or Twin Peaks, with its use of musical counterpoint. There are intensely mature scenes involving more explicit sexual innuendo, as well as sophisticated cinematic photography that plays with color, shadow and texture. Much of the production involved such intimate attention to this stylistic detail, it carries the film. Most well-versed film-goers are sure to appreciate and relish in the varied themes presented here.
The characters in the film are compelling, although two-dimensional, through and through. At first, I considered this a weak point, but when the filmmaker's intentions of style and mood became more clear, I reluctantly acknowledged that stronger characters would have drawn the focus away from the film's more abstract aesthetic qualities. Noire films are often more about style than plot, and the characters are often frustratingly under-explained, not that I necessarily support this aspect of this otherwise fine genre. It's the `contemporary' part that adds the additional dimension of abstraction that demands less from the characters than what we think we want to see. This odd paradox is exactly why I felt the plot was too strong, despite its logistical problems. Had the sequence of events been even less important, I would have found it much easier to bathe in the visual, audible and other aesthetic qualities of the movie.
To that end, `Femme Fatale' is clearly form over substance, which may not appeal to the more casual viewer looking for something reminiscent of previous De Palma mainstream blockbusters, such as `Mission: Impossible.' This film cannot be critiqued with a simple view, and I wish I had hours more to discuss its more intricate nuances, but even still, to recommend for or against seeing it is something I find more difficult than reviewing it.
Antonio Banderas plays Nicolas Bardo, a photographer who has turned his back on photographing celebrities. He now spends his time living in an apartment, making huge composite images by arranging tiny photographs. The Bardo character, in many ways, is Brian De Palma. At war with Hollywood storytelling (which is fuelled by celebrity) De Palma takes these multiple images and weaves them into a tapestry until a final image is made. The point is that the final image is not reality. It is the artists recreation and completely false.
At the end of the film, Bardo completes his masterpiece by inserting a little white figure (of Laura, a name which itself alludes to Otto Preminger's classic) onto his wall. The figure doesn't belong, Bardo simply chooses to put it there. Thematically, "Femme Fatale" ends on the same note. Noir fatalism is thwarted by a completely arbitrary, totally ILLOGICAL and cosmically IMPOSSIBLE moment of editing whereby De Palma redeems his hero and kills off her opponents.
Critics call this sequence implausible. But De Palma's point is that it doesn't have to be plausible. Bardo puts the white figure on his wall because he wants to. Similarly, De Palma ends the film as he does, because he wants to. He shows us Laura's fatalistic noir dream and then rescues her from it. He makes it clear that he is redeeming her and willing this positive ending into existence solely because he as artist, but more importantly, as noir God, has the power to do so.
This flips the usual noir logic. If Kubrick's "The Killing" highlights the deterministic law of the universe (Clay's plan crumbling to pieces all because of a random poodle), De Palma's "Femme Fatale" highlights the power of the artist, able to do recreate a universe entirely devoid of cosmic law.
This theme is also highlighted by the use of the name "Bardo", a Tibetan word meaning "intermediate state". A state between life and death. Over the course of the film, Bardo will be caught between life and death, as De Palma toys with killing him. Bardo's existence or artistic merit is down to an artist's mere whim.
Everything else about De Palma is present in "Femme Fatale": the voyeur and his object, the representation inside the representation, the original and its fake copy, the doubled characters, key episodes built from multiple points of views, the elaborate camera work...
Watch as De Palma's camera continuously misleads our eyes, giving the hidden predominance over the shown, until we are forced to separate in our minds the real from its representation and to connect the different pieces into a "sense". This technique comprises the film watching experience as a whole, and is what De Palma's films are essentially about, from Jack Terry's reconstruction of truth with the aid of montage in "Blow Out", to Santoro's investigations of a crime from partial testimonies in "Snake Eyes".
This theme, the division between reality and image, has grown increasingly important for De Palma. The majority of his films are concerned about how we see and watch movies, the director obsessed with reminding us that information is not the same thing as knowledge.
Consider "Snake Eyes", which opens with an unbroken tracking shot that essentially lays out the film's plot. The rest of the movie then becomes a demonstration of why everything we had seen in that sequence was a lie. Likewise, the opening sequence of "Mission: Impossible" showed us Tom Cruise's crew of agents being picked off one by one. We had already seen each of those murders, though, in nearly subliminal blips during the movie's credit sequence (information without knowledge). "Black Dahlia" and "Redacted" similarly deal with a search for truth amongst an image bank of lies.
"Femme Fatale" begins with a long heist sequence. Throughout this sequence, allusions are made to "Snake Eyes" (the literal "serpent camera" and the object of the heist, a snake shaped piece of gold), De Palma effectively saying: "The camera is a snake and not to be trusted." Note too the film "Est-Ouest" showing as the heist goes on. Like "Femme Fatale", this is another stream-of-consciousness film with an unreliable narrator.
And so the rest of "Femme Fatale" takes a "dream within a film" approach (foreshadowed in opening shot). Watch how De Palma sets this dream sequence up with careful details: the storm, the clock (the time 3:33 will appear on clocks throughout the dream), the water running, Laura sinking, and by having the actors from before her dream taking on different roles within it.
These signifiers, and others, will emerge throughout the film, emphasising the surreal atmosphere of Laura's adventure. Everything becomes disconnected, dialogue makes no sense (at some points it's dubbed without even following the actors' lips!), time jumps back and forth etc etc.
Indeed, during her dream (like "Mulholland Drive"), Laura herself will embody different female archetypes, all traceable in film history and particularly in De Palma's films. She's Kim Novak in "Vertigo" and also Melanie Griffith's prostitute of "Body Double" and so on and so on.
The majority of De Palma's films have dream sequences. Even a "serious" film like "Casualties of War" ends with a character waking up on a train, realising that the whole film was a nightmare. Why does De Palma feel the need to insert this? My guess is that he doesn't want his films to be seen as "real". They exist in a wholly metaphysical space.
8.5/10 - As usual with a De Palma film, critics and audiences rejected "Femme Fatale".
The plot follows the escapades of a young lady that screws the mob out of a heist of diamonds, stolen during a thrillingly executed heist at the Cannes film festival. After assuming a new identity, she later returns to Paris where she must evade her past by any means necessary.
Brian De Palma obviously has a talent for filmmaking; this is evident in the majority of his works, particularly the earlier ones. It's not as abundant in this film as it is in some of his others, but that flair is still shown to a certain extent. He does, however, seem to spend a lot of the movie piling on the style, when he would have been better served building character and giving the audience something to care about. Anyone that knows De Palma, knows that he is the man that "does Hitchcock". Here, he doesn't tribute Hitchcock, but rather the melodramatic noir thrillers of the 40's and 50's. This is clearly shown at the start of the movie from the shot where Rebecca Romijn Stamos is sat on a bed, watching the classic noir; Double Indemnity.
Having only seen Stamos previously under heavy make-up in the delicious X-Men films, it was nice to see her here in a 'normal' role, especially as I was one of the people that saw her sex appeal, even under all that attire. De Palma teases the viewer with her at first; he keeps her face hidden behind various objects and camera movements, but when she finally appears; she doesn't disappoint; Rebecca is one beautiful woman. Especially when she dons that brown wig. Starring alongside Stamos, is Antonio Banderas. I like Antonio a lot; I rate him as an actor, and not just for his role in the spectacular Desperado series. However, he isn't at his best in this film. In a role that requires him to don a silly gay accent at certain points, Banderas doesn't quite look at home. Maybe it's just because I'm used to seeing him flying round shooting bad guys, but he struck me as being a little bored.
It may or may not be a good thing that the film is done partly in French, as on one hand it makes it more realistic, and firmly places us in France; but on the other, we have to read subtitles in an American film, and when I watch an American film; I'm not expecting to read subtitles. Especially not ones that disappear before you have a chance to read them fully, as they often do here. Another thing about Femme Fatale is that it never manages to be as sexy as it pretends to be. Despite making almost full use of the lead's assets, it is ultimately more tease than strip. This could be seen as a nod to the classics to which the film owes itself, but for a film that states itself as being a 'steamy thriller', I was expecting slightly more steam.
The film boils down a final and surprising twist. Throughout, the film keeps you guessing, despite being largely hinged on coincidence; and the twist does come as a surprise, but it is that awful, clichéd twist that everyone dreads. However, to De Palma's credit; he does almost make it good. To pull off a twist like the one in this film, the storyteller needs to be talented enough to not make the audience demand their money back when the movie finishes. When the twist first hit, my eyes were starting to role but credit has to be given to De Palma because even though the twist he's working with is silly, he manages to bring the film to a close which wraps it up, and does tie all the loose ends together. And although I'm still not sure if that was the right route for the film to take, it is well done.
Overall, Femme Fatale is an enjoyable thriller that is bound to keep most audience members on the edge of their seats throughout. It doesn't echo the brilliance of Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Sisters or most of De Palma's earlier oeuvre in the thriller genre; but it is the best film that the man has made since The Untouchables, and is therefore recommended.
SPOILER: I loved and hated this movie. I loved the vast majority of this film, even the use of the split screen (which typically irritates me in De Palma films). We're moving along nicely in this slick film, great on a technical level and interesting on a plot/character level to the point that I'll forgive the unprecedented degree of chance that the story rests on . . . and then . . . and then . . . De Palma basically gives me the middle finger by climaxing with my single greatest pet peeve of all time in all cinema main character wakes up, and its only a dream. My jaw dropped and a stream of thoughts entered my head, utilizing language that would be inappropriate for an IMDb review.
Dare I say that *that* moment was more disappointing than Uwe Boll's House of the Dead? At least Boll's film never resembled anything good, and never got me to the edge of my seat, I never got into that lousy film. But De Palma, Femme Fatale rocked! I loved the opening scene, the whole first heist, which for some reason resonated with a Kubrickian vibe for me (probably due to the choice of music over the action.) Kudos for taking your sweet time. It was appreciated.
And never before had I loved and hated (in a good way) a character as much as I did Rebecca Romijn Stamos' character. She was so evil, but at the same time hilarious and fun with how she played Antonio Banderas', how she manipulated everyone around her. Let's not forget the dialogue between the two when they first meet - the hilariously awesome scene where Antonio has made it into her hotel room with the fake story of losing a 'floppy disk.' This film was so freakin' good . . . and then to be given an "It was all for nothing" dream ending? Leading up to the end of the film, I thought I might, just might, actually see a film where Laure gets away and continues to be a plotting evil little witch, or maybe she'd get what's coming to her and end on a downbeat, and I thought to myself, "I don't really like De Palma, but I have to admit if anyone has the artistic integrity and the balls to go against Hollywood formula and uninformed preview audiences . . . it is Brian De Palma." How is it gonna end? How are they gonna get out of this bind?! You're killing me with suspense De Palma . . . and . . . and . . . aw, crap.
In the De Palma's defense, he was aware that the move would split his audience down the middle, and he did give numerous clues that it was a dream. I can't stress enough that the bulk of the movie worked so wonderfully in grabbing my attention, keeping my attention, and keeping me on the edge of my seat. In that respect, it is a damn good movie. Also in the film's defense, the degree of which the film worked really set up my expectations, but its resolution just happens to be my ultimate narrative pet peeve . . . .
Ah well, as they say en français, "C'est la vie."
Brian De Palma is a master filmmaker. One that has been manipulating audiences for over the last 30 years. The opening of this film is brilliant, with nearly 25 minutes of no dialogue scenes. Yes, there are lines given off here and there as the jewel heist is prepared and executed(it is cool that the heist is the opener and not the climax of this story), but really it is like watching a silent film. The attention to detail in the opening and all through out is what makes the film great, you will watch this over and over and catch something new on each viewing.
Some have argued that De Palma is not an autuer, but indeed he is. He has his trademark long one takes, with the camera gliding around to create a universe that is almost real but still we are aware we are watching fiction. There is the common theme of duel perceptions and persona's burning bright in this film, much like in Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Blow out. That theme is best illistrated by his use of split screen. Also the slow motion is used to perfection here at critical times, unlike Micheal Bay who uses it to make things look pretty.
This is a great film, yes, it takes some suspension of disbelief but that is why its a movie. If its your first De Palma venture you should check out his older thrillers, like Body Double and Blow out. He is a great movie maker that has influenced todays greats like David Fincher, Quinten Tarantino, Richard Kelly and P.T. Anderson in one way or another.