Femme Fatale July 6, 2015
The older acclaimed filmmakers get, the harder it is to retain the excitement found in their earliest features. If you’re Michael Bay, no problem — you were never respected to begin with. But if you’re an auteur who blew the minds of audiences and critics alike for a generation, there’s a good chance you’ll slip up in your later years and get lost in the sands of time. It happened to Hitchcock, to Donen, to Wilder; and, if you want to talk about present-day tragedies, I could passively mention Dario Argento or Brian De Palma.
One doesn’t want to slip up. But the more directors stick to their guns, the more their style inevitably ages. Wes Craven was meta and fresh come A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream time, but these days is he considered to be the guy that revamped the horror genre in the past, presently a living legend who can’t relive his glory days. Francis Ford Coppola was among the defining voices of the 1970s, but he currently spends his time releasing little-seen indies which only suggest a fall from grace.
But let’s go back to Brian De Palma. Billed as the Master of the Macabre in his heyday – he was something of an Alfred Hitchcock of the 1970s and ‘80s – he refreshed tired thriller predictabilities using slick photography and implausible plot twists to complement the tone, not the little-there realism of it all. Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double are untouchable masterpieces of passionate filmmaking, even if some of his choices are questionable. (His most famous movies, Carrie, Scarface, and Mission: Impossible, are famous for a reason, but they hardly capture the same audacious sleaziness of their sexy counterparts.)
As time's gone on, De Palma’s fondness for split-screens, laughable plot twists, and blonde vixens with a liking for cigarettes and sunglasses have gotten remarkably stale, most evidenced by 2012’s awful Passion.
Femme Fatale sees him transitioning into that “old man” phase — though a lot of it doesn’t work, a lot of it does, in ways as stimulating as earlier, more fantastically realized moments in his filmography. There's much to potentially dig at (consider that De Palma decides to pull the rug completely out from under his plot right at the conclusion, leaving us dissatisfied), but there's also much to praise: the movie still manages to often be electrifying, containing some of De Palma’s most artistically brazen sequences.
The titular femme fatale is Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn), a slinky thief who, in the introduction of the film, participates in a risky jewel heist at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. The situation inevitably undergoes myriad complications, and, unfortunately for her fellow criminals, the sharp Ash outsmarts her accomplices and ends up with the goods.
But after partaking in this particularly risky adventure, Ash realizes that living the life of a piece of scum isn’t for her. The film then cuts seven years into the future, and when we find her in De Palma’s 2008, she is the wife of a millionaire, and her past is coming back to haunt her at just the wrong moment.
Femme Fatale gets more and more incomprehensible as it goes along, but never does De Palma’s style stop delighting us. Perhaps at the peak of his artistic powers, he can pull off convoluted instances of slow motion cat-and-mouse games and voyeuristic split-screen snapshots because they feel so right. Often tricky and exotic, Femme Fatale is the kind of film that flourishes the most when it’s choosing style over substance — so it's a shame that De Palma thinks that a final, ludicrous plot development that ruins much of what we've come to experience will actually enchant us.
Still, there’s too much good here to write off. The entire opening might be the best of De Palma's career. The camera zooms in on a grainy version of Double Indemnity on a French television set, the subtitles giving it an allure hardly seen before. The camera pulls back and reveals a shapely woman atop a white-sheeted bed, wearing nothing but lacy black underwear. A cigarette dangles from her mouth, her hair's slicked back, and she passively watches. We're hypnotized. And the rest of the scene, mostly without dialogue and mostly photographed in long takes, transitions into the robbery itself, which, in turn, is sensationally executed.
But after these initial scenes end, Femme Fatale strolls along without the tension it once had and the sexiness it once forced into our laps. It has its moments, though, and it has an endlessly provocative Romijn to tie it all together. B-