Master Thief (FEMME FATALE)

This appeared in the Chicago Reader’s November 8, 2002 issue. –J.R.

Femme Fatale

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Brian De Palma

With Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Peter Coyote, Gregg Henry, Rie Rasmussen, and Eriq Ebouaney.

By my count, Femme Fatale is Brian De Palma’s 26th feature, and as I watched it the first time two months ago I found myself capitulating to its inspired formalist madness — something I’ve resisted in his films for the past 30-odd years. De Palma’s latest isn’t so much an improvement on his earlier work as a grand synthesis of it — as if he set out to combine every previous thriller he’d made in one hyperbolically frothy cocktail. So we get split-screen framing; bad girls; sweetie-pie male suckers; verbal and physical abuse; lots of blood; a melodramatic story stretched out over many years; slow-motion, lyrically rendered catastrophes; noirish lighting schemes favoring venetian blinds; it-was-all-a-dream plot twists; scrambled and recomposed plot mosaics; obsessional repetitions of sound and image; pastiches of familiar musical pieces (in this case Ravel and Satie); nearly constant camera movements; and ceiling-height camera angles. Best of all, we often get several of these things simultaneously. (One of the few De Palma movies for which he takes sole script credit, Femme Fatale is nothing if not personal.) What I haven’t liked about his work is still there, but I’ve had to readjust how I see it.

I’d always been annoyed by De Palma’s intricate borrowings from Alfred Hitchcock, which I’ve tended to see more as mangled tributes than as perceptive appreciations. My misgivings were only reinforced when his biggest fans, especially Pauline Kael and her most literal followers, implied that Hitchcock was a bit of a hack next to the genius De Palma — suggesting that Hitchcock churned out dross, which his disciple somehow turned into the pure gold of sublime trash. De Palma’s borrowings were all the more irritating when it became clear that much of his supposed fealty to the master came less from his soul than from his big production budgets, which enabled him to hire Bernard Herrmann for Sisters and Obsession — though all he wanted Herrmann to do was imitate his scores for Vertigo and Psycho. Say what you will about Hitchcock’s calculation, his work displays an almost limitless curiosity about human behavior, whereas De Palma’s shows an interest in people (as opposed to types and figures) that approaches zero.

Femme Fatale opens with Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), an American femme fatale who’s posing as a press photographer, watching the climax of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity on TV in her hotel room. Black Tie (Eriq Ebouaney), a French-African heist meister, shows up to bark out some final instructions. The picture then moves on to an extremely elaborate heist, carried out to the strains of Bolero, during the opening credits of a film being screened at the 2001 Cannes film festival. With only a minimum of dialogue, we learn from the crosscutting that Laure is seducing an actress in the ladies’ room, and as she drops the detachable gold sections of the actress’s serpent-shaped wraparound halter on the floor, Black Tie, dressed in a tux and hiding just a few feet away, replaces them with fakes. Meanwhile, his partner Racine, dressed in a high-tech rubber suit with goggles that evokes De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, is using a laser to bore into the bowels of the building’s power station so that the electricity and the film can be shut off while Black Tie absconds with the loot.

Subsequent dialogue identifies this loot as diamonds, not gold, so maybe I missed something — but who cares? What matters isn’t plot details, much less character or motivation. It’s the visual rhymes — such as the serpentine halter and the serpentine probe Racine uses — and other kinds of abstract visual patterns that hype up various incidents.

The sequence of events and the heist are much more complicated than I’m making them sound. But since De Palma is interested in the sequence first, the heist second, and the characters last, everything seems to happen like clockwork. The heist is beyond far-fetched — everything hinges on a mere glance from Laure diverting an exhibitionistic actress from her own premiere for the sake of a quickie in a bathroom — yet part of our pleasure in the sequence is predicated on our recognition of its flat-out absurdity. And because we’re persuaded by De Palma’s baroque stylistics, we’re bound to see his characters as somewhat dehumanized. De Palma isn’t so much eliminating motivations as minimizing and mocking them.

The postmodernist assumption behind this whole exercise is that we’re only pretending we believe that these events are taking place and that these bodies are human characters. As a consequence, a certain telegraphic crudeness becomes both desirable and necessary. Black Tie, for instance, has to be hyperbolically abusive toward Laure just to show that he’s even more of a villain than she is. When he’s shot a little later, he has to bleed buckets, and the red stains on his dress shirt have to be just as vivid when he emerges from prison seven years later. (This detail provoked laughter in the audience both times I saw the movie — laughter that suggested affection as well as ridicule.)

Hitchcock was interested in the psychology and behavior of his audience as well as of his characters. De Palma, a formalist, is interested in having his audience be impressed, horrified, amused, or titillated, but not engaged morally or ethically in the Hitchcockian sense. This makes him seem cheap and synthetic when he’s compared with Hitchcock (as he most commonly is) or with the Italian neorealists and other humanist filmmakers (as he was by Kael for his Casualties of War). But away from such company he blossoms.

It was Kael’s aesthetic that got in the way of my appreciating De Palma for what he is instead of disliking him for what he isn’t. Her embrace of what she called De Palma’s trashiness was central to her celebration of youthfulness in both movie art and movie audiences — especially the kind that regarded leftist humanism as square and choked with noble intentions.

De Palma’s visceral kicks, which occupy a place halfway between Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino, offered a liberation from stodgy sentiment. In principle, this idea was seductive for someone like me with a formalist bent, but the anti-intellectualism of Kael’s trash aesthetic struck me as a form of confinement rather than liberation. What she viewed as antipuritanical I viewed as a puritanical taboo against intellectual pleasure — which I believed ought to enhance visceral kicks rather than deny or dilute them.

I realize that De Palma’s thrillers are commonly regarded as emotional rather than cerebral, but I’d question how emotional one can be about characters one only halfheartedly (quarter-heartedly?) believes in. Laure finds herself mistaken for a woman who looks exactly like her, a woman named Lily (also played by Romijn-Stamos) seen playing Russian roulette as she hysterically grieves the loss of her children — a hysteria that’s stylized in such a way that it becomes a parody of extreme emotion. This is a cerebral take on the way hundreds of other movies have defined hysteria rather than any form of observation, a semaphoric set of signals designed to represent hysteria rather than embody it. De Palma intends to steer us through the thriller mechanics and conventions, not let us get bogged down in emotions.

If you can accept that this is his game plan, it immediately becomes apparent that he can move easily through these conventions, playing and experimenting with his materials like the freest of formalists. The pleasures to be had for the audience are akin to those that come from assembling or disassembling a jigsaw puzzle — cerebral delights that have only a glancing relationship to human behavior, though they can have an allegorical relationship to our grasp of life and destiny.

However ludicrous the opening heist sequence of Femme Fatale might seem, it proposes a kind of willful symmetry. The movie’s climactic slow-motion catastrophe — which we actually see assembled and disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle in two separate versions — is an equally implausible form of symmetry that’s governed by chance and fate. Both sequences are of course conceived and constructed by De Palma, and the metaphysical distinctions between how and why they unfold add up to a philosophical position, if not a moral or ethical one.

The first time Laure sees Lily playing Russian roulette in a Paris flat, there’s a leaking aquarium in a corner of the room. Since we see the leak before any bullet is fired, we may be puzzled by this detail — which arguably gets explained, after a fashion, when we return to the same scene much later in the film. I was surprised to be reminded of the unexplained rainfall glimpsed inside a house in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but it occurred to me later that this parallel might not be as implausible as I supposed — and not just because De Palma is a compulsive moviegoer who sees a lot more than Hollywood product. (He has often noted that he’s virtually the only mainstream filmmaker who regularly attends foreign film festivals as a spectator.)

Tarkovsky — a formalist who’s often been misidentified as a humanist, perhaps because of his mysticism — sometimes showed a similar indifference to his characters, such as the family of the hero who burns his house down in the final sequence of his last film, The Sacrifice. Formalism and an absence of humanism don’t necessarily entail a lack of artistic seriousness. Indeed, looking for symmetry and coherence in a universe that seems to consist only of chaotic fragments from other movies — a very contemporary and very real dilemma — might constitute a genuine quest for transcendence.

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