Chris Wisniewski on Femme Fatale

“You don’t have to lick my ass,” she says, turning away from him, bending over the table, “just fuck me.” And so he does. But whoever’s on top, there’s absolutely no doubt who’s in control. After all, she’s our eponymous femme fatale, made, almost literally, in the image of Barbara Stanwyck. Like her predecessor, she claims to be “rotten to the heart,” and she wields sex as a weapon—the film’s breathtaking opening heist makes that clear enough. Were that all there was to Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002), though, were it simply an exercise in pastiche and recycled generic tropes, it’d amount to little more than Todd Haynes-lite for the decidedly non-queer crowd—Far from Heaven minus the self-conscious semiotics, the awkward historicism, and the pesky feminism. No, there’s a vibrant playfulness here, and something more. When Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) seduces Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), she’s playing him like a fiddle, but she’s also getting off. It’s an intoxicating blend of power and pleasure, so assured that it feels like a revelation: “You don’t have to lick my ass; just fuck me.”

So it is that Brian De Palma, that smut-peddling misogynist with a fetish for women naked or dead (or, preferably, both), recuperates the maligned figure of the femme fatale and makes his own grand feminist statement. In truth, De Palma is neither a misogynist nor a feminist: women are often his camera’s subject and its object, and his films trade on the Hitchcockian fascination with the cinematic image of woman as a locus of desire and violence, attraction and disturbance. Femme Fatale superficially replaces Hitchcock with film noir as De Palma’s primary reference point, but its central concerns—what it means to look at and to see, to know and to understand—are as grand and summative as anything he’s ever done. De Palma’s films often blur the line between indulgence and critique—that’s part of the reason he’s such a controversial and contestable figure. It’s impossible to say how seriously he takes what he’s doing, whether he’s a perverse and dirty old man or a wickedly adept artist. The answer is that he’s a bit of both, and that’s never been more true than when it comes to Laure Ash.

Laure is an object of desire; she exists to be looked at. She’s also radically empowered, a clairvoyant, a visionary capable of intuiting her future before it happens, and changing it. In the opening shot of the film, she’s a reflected image upon an image—her face superimposed on Stanwyck’s as she sits in front of the television, gorgeous and half-naked. She barely manages more than a sentence through the first reel or so of the film. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, in an audacious bit of casting, brings little beyond her formidable body to a role that, though it requires chameleon-like transformations and a full repertoire of European accents, barely registers in terms of character. She’s unknowable and impenetrable. She’s a blank, omni-sexual, erotically charged nothing. In an alternate universe, one that far too many critics seemed to occupy when Femme Fatale was first released, this could all be dismissed with two judicious swipes, “lousy acting” and “lousy writing.” What brilliant casting, though, and what glorious filmmaking—as Romijn-Stamos embodies her, we could never hope to understand Laure, to pin her down, to fix her in a spot; it’s what keeps her always ahead of us, completely in control of the film, the only person besides De Palma in the know, no matter how much he teases us by almost letting us in on the joke.

In the heist that opens the film, a fit of heavy lesbian erotics (in a ladies room at the Cannes Film Festival, natch) between Laure and Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), a woman wearing a diamond-studded bodice, disguises a clever bait and switch: Laure dismantles the garment, piece by piece, dropping it to the floor for her apparent accomplice (Eriq Ebouaney) to replace with glass-studded knock-offs, but when she drops the bra, she switches the real one with the fake. Her male accomplice takes the glass, and Veronica walks off wearing the diamond-studded bra. Laure’s double-cross happens right there in the frame, in plain view—not that anyone would notice. De Palma directs our gaze to these women’s bodies and invites us to fetishize them as his camera fetishizes them; all the while, we’re looking at the wrong thing, and De Palma knows it. We miss the crucial exchange, even though it happens right in front of us.

In Femme Fatale, everyone’s always mistaking what it is they think they’re seeing. Laure is misidentified as a suicidal Frenchwoman and proceeds to steal the woman’s identity. Later, Nicolas thinks he’s snapped a photograph of Lily Watts, an ambassador’s wife, and in a way he has. He doesn’t know that he’s also publicly exposed Laure to the accomplice she betrayed and drawn himself into a much more dangerous situation than he ever bargained for. Laure/Lily twists this small defeat to her own advantage, and dupes her husband (Peter Coyote) into thinking Nicolas has kidnapped her for a $2 million ransom that she plans to pocket. And when Nicolas appears to take the upper-hand over Laure, recording her confessing her treachery, she remains one step ahead—of him, of her husband, of the former conspirators she’s betrayed, and of us as spectators.

The only defeat Laure seems to suffer ends up being a narrative trick, one that once again reinstates her position of complete control (and for those who haven’t seen the film, a warning: I’m about to reveal the big third act twist). Just as her masterful plot unravels and Laure falls into the Seine River, plunging to her death, she awakens, seven years earlier, in a water-filled bathtub, from a dream (in this case, a nightmare vision of her future). The film’s detractors have railed hard on this particular twist— they see the “It was all a dream” thing as a cheap, easy device for De Palma to write himself out of a corner. Never mind that the dream is built into the visual fabric of the entire film. Laure falls asleep in the water at 3:33, and from then on, every clock in the film is fixed to the same time (3:33). Portentously placed images of water, the most conspicuous an overflowing aquarium seen just seconds after the dream sequence begins, give subtle visual cues of Laure’s sopping slumber. The evidence is there; the question is whether or not we see it. Laure sees; we don’t. Laure knows, and understands, and uses what she learns from her dream-cum-intuition to save herself, Lily, and Nicolas. We’re content to let ourselves get blindsided by each narrative turn and then complain (or applaud, depending on our predispositions) because we didn’t see it coming.

The entirety of the film hinges on the ability to make sense of visual information and to see things as they are, which is why it’s so brilliant that De Palma constantly puts us in the position of misrecognizing what we’re seeing, despite giving us the clues. Those are the diamonds; that is her conspirator; this is a dream. You just didn’t see it. Fittingly, Laure finally gets the better of the men who are hunting her thanks to literal blindness—a flash of sunlight, refracted through a piece of jewelry, blinds a truck driver who drives the men into the spikes of a metal grate, a most violent and lethal penetration. De Palma, like Hitchcock, is perpetually concerned with the idea of “the gaze”—the gaze of the camera, of the spectator, and of the straight male (all of which may be, in some sense, variations of the same thing)—and with disrupting the equation that to look is to see; to see is to know; and to know is to have power.

Shortly before she seduces Nicolas, Laure does a short striptease for a man in the basement of a bar, as Nicolas watches from the other side of the doorway. We see most of the striptease from Nicolas’s point-of-view, as though she’s dancing for his benefit and, by extension, for ours. It’s pure titillation, a softcore cinematic masculine fantasy. Then De Palma turns everything around. The other man loses control and lunges at her, and Nicolas, perhaps out of jealousy or some masculine impulse to protect Laure, jumps and attacks him. We watch her watching them, the fight visible only as a shadow play on the wall. They do their little masculine dance, and she spectates with delight, applauding as it reaches its climax. Perspectives shift—the looked-at does the looking; power dynamics are reconfigured. Fetish becomes critique in this deadly game of transmuting identities and shifting realities, a veritable cinematic hall of mirrors.