Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.
Femme Fatale opens with protagonist Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watching Double Indemnity, before embarking on a heist directed by several brutalist accomplices, Black Tie (Eriq Ebouaney) and Racine (Edouard Montoute). That movie reference, combined with the title, informs us the director is very much occupying a lush movie fantasy world, only underlined by the diamond heist taking place at the Cannes Film Festival.
And the opening twenty minutes find the director coming up with a typically De Palma-esque piece of sleazy suspense: the heist executed as a seduction, with Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), sporting the precious gems, pressed against an opaque cubicle wall as the hidden Black Tie exchanges the items for fakes (quite how this is planned out, is unclear; the liaison was presumably planned with Veronica as Laure’s pre-existing lover, but that doesn’t tell us how Veronica ensured she’d be wearing the jewellery). It’s as sustained a piece of bravura filmmaking as only De Palma can deliver, and duly impresses.
Then, however, the picture changes gear, as Laure double-crosses her associates and winds up fleeing the country, only to return seven years later under an assumed identity, married to Peter Coyote’s ambassador. Which is exactly when Black Tie is released from prison. Very conveniently. Almost as if… Lest we’re persuaded events are following a dream logic – because, as we eventually discover, the majority of what follows is a dream, within the context of De Palma’s fictional reality – it’s actually a premonition. One borrowing from the likes of Sliding Doors, It’s A Wonderful Life and Run Lola Run for alternate timeline choices.
De Palma earlier threw in, in absurdly Hitchcockian, Vertigo-influenced – always with the Vertigo – manner, a doppelganger for Laure in the form of Lily, who despondently blows her brains out, so giving Laure an opportunity for a new identity and life; she’s in Lily’s bath tub when Lily returns home, and observes the event. Come the conclusion, Laure awakes, still in the tub, and this time prevents Lily from pulling the trigger, advising her to get on the flight to hook up with Peter Coyote. We see at the end that the villains are indeed on her trail (again seven years later), but this time they are killed themselves, impaled on some handy truck spikes… So has Lily been put on a magazine cover, identifying “her” as a target this time? And why, if Laure paid heed to her dream, would she be anywhere near the place things went so wrong “last time”?
Essentially, it’s an uber-trickster choice, the kind of thing that would legitimately infuriate a viewer, although that isn’t so much my problem with Femme Fatale (it did make me wonder, though; if Laure had gone ahead as before, how much of her dream’s footsteps would she tread?) The director telegraphs his conceit with movie poster Déjà Vue adorning hoardings. No, the problem is the director’s title character.
De Palma “wanted a heroine who would be funny, sexy and deliciously cruel, one who would arouse strong feelings in the audience”. Except, with Romjin-Stamos’ underpowered performance, all you really take away is the cruel, after the initial sympathy for escaping oppressors. De Palma doesn’t help matters any with her inscrutable motivation (what is the extent of her relationship with Veronica? Does she care for Coyote? Presumably not, if she shoots him dead at the drop of a hat. How does she even know she needs to frame Antonio Banderas’ pap photographer Nicolas? Is she just assuming Black Tie and Racine will catch up with her?) We might suggest this is her ruthless dream self, and as such, ascribing sympathetic feelings is irrelevant, but if you’re taking that approach, it’s all too easy to advance to the next step, which is broad indifference.
Another actress might have imbued De Palma’s rather empty canvas with some degree of personality (both Uma Thurman and J-Lo were considered), but without that, Laure is little more than ornamental, the director taking great pleasure in offering exquisite tableaus of Laure in various states of revealing outfits or lack thereof. De Palma loves shooting Romjin-Stamos, but from that POV he’d might as well have cast Rasmussen, whom he loves shooting even more. It’s easy to see why he jumped at the chance of casting her, but the objectified character isn’t usually the protagonist in his movies. There needs to be more flesh on her bones, even to make her work as the silhouetted classic noir femme fatale he has here.
Banderas is clearly set up from the opening movie cue as a chump Fred MacMurray type, but if Laure is one-dimensional, Nicolas Bardo is too peripheral to become an effective dupe (“This world’s hell and you’re nothing but a fucking patsy”), and too plain dumb to elicit sympathy. Bardo seems more like a Craig Wasson in Body Double than your typical Banderas – which may explain why his wife persuaded him to take it, and he persuaded De Palma to teach him directing in return – and he never really feels like a comfortable fit for the character (Jean Reno was apparently in the running). The result is that, without strong counterbalances to the De Palma style in terms of performance, Femme Fatale is too thin (Coyote is barely in it, the same for Greg Henry, while Thierry Fremont indulges overplaying as a ham police inspector).
Stylistically, De Palma’s on form, then, although the Parisian setting, even with Luc Besson DP Thierry Arbogast aboard, is an insufficiently heightened space for his dream narrative. There’s too much real world there, and while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is effectively playful (and Ravel influenced) in the opening sections, it lacks strong identity as Femme Fatale progresses. If anything, distilling a De Palma down to its technical virtuosity, without the other departments more than serviceably in place, shows how much, no matter how auteurish he identifiably is, he needs an effective support structure to make hay.