Femme Fatale

Nov 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

femme fatale: an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into difficult, dangerous or disastrous situations; siren. [<French: literally, fatal woman]

Barbara Stanwyck’s black and white image glares hauntingly from a TV screen as she embodies Phyllis Dietrichson, the quintessential femme fatale of the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944). Nearly naked, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, the supermodel-actress best known on screen for X-Men) lies like a postmodern odalisque in the rippling shadows of Femme Fatale’s ironically cool glow while sucking on a cigarette. She takes in both the smoke and Dietrichson. But Romijn-Stamos’ Ash is not convincing as a smoker nor a femme fatale. And Femme Fatale is not a film noir.

Ash is a jewel thief — after a fashion. Writer-director Brian De Palma (Mission to Mars) sets off the heist at the Cannes Film Festival during a screening of director Régis Wargnier’s (who plays himself) Est-Ouest, a melodramatic tragedy featuring an ironic femme fatale. In an elegant bathroom (labeled “femmes” of course), behind the frosted glass of a stylish stall, Ash applies what seems to be her sole skill — seduction — in order to remove more than a million-dollars’ worth of jewelry from Wargnier’s supermodel escort, Veronica (Romijn-Stamos’ former Victoria’s Secret modeling colleague Rie Rasmussen).

The gold, gem-encrusted snakes that Ash unwraps from Veronica’s model-perfect breasts are a contemporary, high-fashion reflection of the costumes worn by silent screen siren Theda Bara, cinema’s definitive “vamp,” the proto-femme fatale. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (Oscar and Grammy winner for The Last Emperor sound track) orchestrally underscores the scene with variations on Ravel’s sexually iconic “Bolero.”

But Veronica’s exposed skin and her contrived coupling with Ash radiate about as much heat as Stanwyck’s video image (unless you’ve got a fetish for supermodel lipstick lesbianism). Hitchcock blondes like To Catch a Thief’s Grace Kelly and Vertigo’s Kim Novak managed more sophisticated smolder while under the wraps of haute couture.

True to form, De Palma opens with this, the strongest sequence of Femme Fatale, and continues to inlay visuals and plot elements that echo cinematic history. When the plot line slackens, this at least offers a game for the more dedicated (or obsessive) film enthusiast to play while waiting for the next twist: Call it “Pin the Derivation on the Picture.”

Photographer Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever) steals a snapshot of Ash, snagging both in a new version of the often-frayed web of intrigue — shades of Blow-Up (1966)? (De Palma made an ’80s Hollywood thriller-variation on Antonioni’s avant-garde mystery that he titled Blow Out). A case of vaguely Hitchcockian mistaken identity leads to a reverse take on Vertigo when Bardo (a surname phonetically and ironically too close for coincidence to that of the paparazzi-hounded Brigitte Bardot) serendipitously re-encounters and recognizes Ash years later as Lily, the wife of ambassador Bruce Hewitt Watt (Peter Coyote, A Walk to Remember), a man at least 30 years her senior. De Palma borrows the infamous framing device of Fritz Lang’s film noir The Woman in the Window (1945) for his endgame.

But again, Femme Fatale is not a film noir. Film noirs (a literal translation from the French would be “black films”) are made of matter so dark with tragic irony that it sucks the light from the cinematic frame: Average Joes become ironic, biblical Jobs falling into the gravity well of a femme fatale’s unleashed libido — and alienation, paranoia and disaster follow close at her high heels. At best, redemption comes in the 11th hour only when the bad girl is transmuted into tame marriage material. At worst, there’s only death for all intimately involved.

De Palma sets Femme Fatale under the golden Mediterranean sun. Looking like a Grace Kelly innocent of any actual sophistication, Romijn-Stamos’ bad girl just wants to have fun — filthy-rich, nasty fun. Bardo’s troubles are contrived — like Romijn-Stamos’ hollow, plastic parody of sexuality — but so is this entire picture. While the tragic irony of film noir is horribly human, the characters here are constructed of other cinematic constructs and that may be Femme Fatal’s fatal flaw.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].