Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale (2002)
Starring Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney

De Palma came off of Snake Eyes and went in a total 180 to make Mission to Mars. I don’t think any one could have really predicted that film from him: A science fiction film set in the future involving a rescue mission to Mars with aliens and special effects and so on. It was definitely a risky move on his part, and ultimately it failed. There were moments that worked, in particular a planetfall sequence involving risky maneuvers using a deep knowledge of gravity and physics. It had a lot of tension in and drew me in, but overall the film was a mess. So for his second film of the 21st century, De Palma revisited some Hitchcock elements, but more he dipped fulling into the Noir genre, something he had skirted his entire career but never gone full bore into.

The film opens on a heist being taken by a trio of anonymous figures. The main element in the heist is a tall, attractive blonde posing as a photographer. She lures the arm candy of a director at a film premiere in Cannes to the bathroom, and the two women begin having a tryst. The photog undresses her from the flimsy gold and diamond encrusted chest ornament (its not really a shirt or bustier, its like gold snake that doesn’t cover all the bits and such). A second person takes the pieces of the ornament at it drops to the floor. Things go wrong and the photog double crosses the man running things and heads off with the diamonds. Through a case of mistaken identity she ends up in the place of a French woman whose husband and daughter have just been killed. Her life diverges onto a very strange path that culminates seven years later in a series of double crosses and cons.

This film is one where De Palma’s camerawork completely meshes with the plot. The opening heist sequence, taking place in a lavish theater in Cannes is so much fun. Its obvious that Mission: Impossible was the practice, and this heist is its culmination to perfection. Seeing all the devices and methods employed to get the ornament is lots of fun. Its also full of that nervous tension that makes those types of scenes enjoyable to watch. We root for the thieves and wriggling in our seats as security inches closer and the chance that every will fall apart goes higher. The entire sequence is near wordless and, like many of De Palma’s top film moments, could be presented as short film unto itself.

Rebecca Romijn is not a great actress, I know I shocked you with that statement. But, when you think about it, neither was Grace Kelly, but she made a hell of a Hitchcock female lead. Romijn does what she needs to do here, the classic film noir femme fatale is not really a three dimensional figure. And I have to say she fooled me during many of her double crossing, well both she and De Palma together fooled me. Like any great noir female she creates stories that make her sympathetic and earn the trust of those around her. She is duplicitous and evil, yet we root for her. Antonio Banderas’ tabloid photog on the other hand is not quite as charismatic or interesting, even though he makes for a more plausible protagonist.

The third act twist seemed a bit out of left field and reminded me of the much better Mulholland Drive (if we’re talking metaphysical identity mysteries, its is better). There are clues sprinkled in the first half of the film that hint at two interpretations of what happens in the rest of it. This could be a Dorothy Gale instance of imposing faces onto figures in one’s psyche or it could all be literal. De Palma never says for sure but he leaves the door open so that either makes sense within the universe of the film. There are set pieces galore here and a real admittance that this is not about substance, its about style. The fact that the director pulls this off in such a technically clever way makes it heaps more enjoyable than whatever a style focused director like Michael Bay offers up. The film was a colossal financial failure for De Palma, however, something he hasn’t recovered from in the eight years since.

Next Up: The Black Dahlia and De Palma bombs again

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