Femme Fatale Review

Be warned, this review contains an intemperate rant against De Palma's critics, most of whom are too busy counting supposed 'steals' (and missing some of the best ones) to form a rational reply to it. If any of you have got a considered response to my comments, feel free to post it and I'll be happy to reply.

Within ten minutes of viewing Femme Fatale, two things are immediately apparent. Firstly, that Brian De Palma is back on his very best form and, secondly, that all De Palma's critics are really going to hate it. This, like Raising Cain, is the great director's special little 'anti-valentine' to his critics, a gorgeously stylised erotic thriller which is a joy to watch despite some occasionally makeshift plotting.

I had the good fortune to watch this before I had read any spoilers at all, so I will try and extend the courtesy to you, dear reader. However, any discussion of the film may well spoil the potent spell it casts, so if you wish to remain virginal then skip down to the comments on the disc.

The plot marks a return for De Palma to the kind of small-scale thriller with which he made his name. Set in France, the film flirts with classic 'giallo' territory - a fallguy who doesn't have the good sense to stay out of other people's business. Antonio Banderas plays Bardo, a paparazzi photographer who has fallen on hard times and is asked to photograph the mysterious wife of the new American ambassador. Using a little disguise and ingenuity he succeeds, but soon wishes he hadn't when a shadowy aide of the Ambassador's phones him to ask for the photo back; initially for a good price and subsequently with veiled threats of retribution. This being a De Palma movie, our hero decides to discover just what the lady has to hide and manages to get involved in her life. But he doesn't, even for an instant, realise what he's let himself in for. The lady is Laure (Romijn-Stamos) , whom we have seen during the first third of the film, execute a daring robbery at the Cannes Film Festival, screw her partners out of the loot and blithely walk away into a fortuitous new life. But her partners have survived, come out of jail and are out for revenge. The more Bardo becomes entwined in her life, the more danger awaits both of them.

A reasonably simple story but, as you'd expect with peak-form De Palma, it's not nearly as simple as that. Just when you think you know where the film is going, he pulls out the rug from under you and forces you to re-evaluate what you've just seen. His decision to separate the film into three distinct sections allows him to play games with pacing and manipulate the emotions of the viewer with the immense expertise you'd expect of a 30 year veteran of the genre. The first part, set in Cannes, is packed with trademark De Palma shots, from the careful use of varying speeds of slow-motion to the deliberately showy use of a split diopter. The film opens with a four minute tracking shot but it's an interesting one as it's confined to a single room and two characters and, as a little flourish, the face of the woman isn't shown (in fact we don't see her face for ten minutes despite the action being based almost entirely around her). Shorter tracking shots follow but they are so well integrated in the action that we don't notice how smoothly the camera is moving. The heist scene is a little confusing at first and, for this viewer anyway, the lesbian fumblings between Romijn-Stamos and her quarry are a touch distracting at a moment that you need to be paying attention. But once you get the idea, each little detail - painstakingly pointed out in such a subtle way that only a second viewing reveals the cleverness - falls into place. Shooting at the 2001 Festival pays dividends of course, and there's an amusing little role for the real life director whose film is being premiered. The middle third of the film is the story of what happens to her once she escapes, much of it set 7 years later, the last third is.... well, I'll leave you to find that out for yourself.

That De Palma is having an absolute ball is evident in just about every frame. It's when you see the first use of the split-screen that you know he's come home after the peculiar disaster of Mission to Mars. It's not just his mastery of the technique, although that's beyond question, it's the precision with which he uses it to make a point and visualise the main theme of the movie which is the different ways things can be seen and the ways fate can change an event or, at its extremes, a person's entire life. This is an experimental movie in some ways and it's as precariously balanced between sense and nonsense as David Lynch's somewhat similar Mulholland Drive. For some reason, when Lynch explodes with stylistics all over the place and plots that don't really make much sense, he's called a genius. When De Palma does the same thing, he's called incompetent. The two directors are remarkably similar with this film, and that's not to call either of them a plagiarist. Both have made an art movies in the form of commercial thrillers, both have a fascination with metaphysics which crops up time and again in their films and both are incredibly skillful at using the camera to tell the story. Both also write great, funny and unpredictable dialogue which is often called abysmal - De Palma's best line here, for my money, is "I don't want you to kiss my ass, just fuck it", which is funny, appropriate and completely in character. The difference is that, in Mulholland Drive, Lynch throws in weirdness for the sake of it while in Femme Fatale De Palma manages to contain everything within a strong, if sometimes infuriating, premise which is guaranteed to divide audiences down the middle. It should also be pointed out that a second viewing reveals that the clues are there if you know where to look for them. It's certainly not a cheat - unlike the otherwise great Fritz Lang film which also uses this twist, where it is because in that one, it's used to avoid tying up the loose ends.

Now, a word about 'plagiarism'. Let's consider the case for the prosecution. Brian De Palma has stolen from Hitchcock, Antonioni, Coppola, Eisenstein, Argento etc etc. and is therefore a plagiarist. Now, let's first consider the nature of art. All good, even 'great' art, in whatever way, builds on what has come before it. Eliot and Pound on the work of the New Poetry school, Fielding on Defoe, Webster on Middleton, Pinter on Beckett and so on. This equally holds true in cinema. Eisenstein's use of the steps in Battleship Potemkin is obviously indebted to Griffith's Babylonain sequence in Intolerance, a film which inspired just about every silent filmmaker of any note. Chabrol modelled virtually his entire career on Hitchcock and Truffaut made several films in deliberate imitation of the master. Ford was more than familiar with the films of Hawks, Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh and Welles took a lesson or two from Ford, Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Eisenstein and various others. None of this should be considered a bad thing - the only ideas which shouldn't be stolen are the bad ones. De Palma, who is a much more imaginative thief than most, steals from the best and then puts his own spin on the scene. His use of the camera is just about unique, his tone is warmly erotic (rather than coldly misanthropic or ironically romantic as with Hitchcock) and his use of structure is very much his own. So, yes, his heroes or heroines might die after 40 minutes, a la Janet Leigh, but what then happens is completely different and usually just as, if not more, interesting. The motivation of the killers in Dressed To Kill is superficially similar but not the same. There are, gasp, shower scenes in both films. Do people who complain about this really like films ? I think not, I think they go through their lives looking for things to quibble about in films which are far better than they deserve. De Palma is accused of plagiarism because he does on the surface what other directors do less obviously. So Paul Schrader knocks off Bresson in American Gigolo and no-one complains, possibly because most people who whine endlessly about plagiarism aren't cine-literate enough to have seen any Bresson. Argento alludes frequently to The Red Shoesin Suspiria and the only writer I've ever seen mention it is Michael Brooke on this very site. These pseudo-critics are small minded and tiresome, plagiarists themselves because they can't even be bothered to come up with an original spin on how to 'get' De Palma and so fall back on reiterating the same old claims which have been coming up with monotonous regularity every couple of years. I've even heard someone complain that putting a Peckinpah gunfight into the middle of Eisenstein's Odessa Steps isn't original because the original was 'a gunfight' itself - don't these people know the difference between a classically structured Hollywood showdown between good and evil and a historical massacre in which the innocent are being slaughtered by the state? It's time for De Palma's fans to take the fight and stop worrying about people who don't have the wit or imagination to see behind a few obvious references to other filmmakers. De Palma isn't a 'plagiarist', he's a brilliant, original artist who is, currently, without equal in the genre to which he has most frequently returned. As for 'style without substance', as I've said before, when the style is this accomplished it is the substance. This is magic-time, and surely that's one of the main reasons for going to the cinema in the first place.

Rant over. Femme Fatale is essential viewing for anyone who thinks cinema should be more visual and less prosaic. It's as scrupulously crafted a collection of cinematic techniques as you're likely to see, in the firm tradition of Welles and Godard - both of whom have collected as much criticism as praise over the years. You could reasonably complain that the characters aren't especially interesting but Banderas does what he has to and does it well, and Romijn-Stamos is a revelation as a manipulative bitch who is more sneakily sympathetic the worse she behaves. She also handles the last twenty minutes with immense skill, considering what she's required to convey. You could also complain that the film contains some implausibilities which not even the ending manages to explain. But, for example, worrying that the opening heist isn't professionally carried out is a bit strange - if thieves weren't sometimes incompetent then they wouldn't ever get caught. But De Palma controls the tone with great cunning, even managing to offer a moment of poignant reflection at the end which isn't really very typical of his work. At one stage, towards the end, a small crystal becomes pivotal to the plot and that somehow sums up the entire film - it's a jewel of craftsmanship amongst films which are little more than mediocre. If I go for 9/10 rather than 10/10, that's because compared to a fully achieved masterpiece of filmmaking like Dressed To Kill, this is a little too flawed here and there to be on the same level of perfection. But it took years for Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock to really get the critical attention and praise they deserved. Griffiths, Lang and Eisenstein ended up in relative obscurity. Let's cherish Brian De Palma while we have the chance.

The Disc

This isn't a bad disc from Warner DVD. In fact, it's really rather good but it's also disappointing when you consider that much lesser films are receiving feature packed 24 disc special editions.

The film is presented in the original 1.85:1 ratio. This is unusual for late De Palma, as every film he's made since Raising Cain has been 2.35:1. The disc has been anamorphically enhanced. It's an exceptional transfer in just about every respect. Important details in the film such as shadows are presented with impressive crispness and there is no artifacting to be seen. The lack of distracting grain can be seen in a comparison with the TV clip of Double Indemnity which opens the film. The picture is finely detailed and the colours are beautifully rich. As other reviewers have noted, there is a certain edge enhancement but that is the only flaw of this transfer.

The soundtrack is equally good, if not quite as striking. The surrounds are used frequently, largely for ambient effects although dialogue is spatially placed. The score sounds fantastic throughout and there are some notable moments for the sub-woofer to come into play. This is a good, solid 5.1 track. There is no DTS track. Some scenes are presented in French with English subtitles.

The extra features are limited to short documentaries, trailers and filmographies. Principally, we have two Laurent Bouzereau documentaries, "Visualising Femme Fatale" and "Femme Fatale- An Appreciation" which are good to watch but annoyingly superficial. De Palma is on genial form throughout, although looking alarmingly old, and the usual ground is covered. But, as so often with Bouzereau, you can't get excited about these featurettes. They seem a little tired, too made to a formula. Sometimes, afterwards, you can't always remember what film the documentary was about. The other documentaries are very brief. "Femme Fatale: Dressed to Kill" is a montage about the very lovely Ms Romijn-Stavos and "Behind The Scenes" is your standard, er, behind the scenes. It's a shame that De Palma doesn't do commentaries though, especially in such a personally styled film as this. Cast And Crew offers brief filmographies. There are two trailers featured. The American one is fairly straightforward but the French one is great. It's basically the entire film played at high speed with occasional pauses, and it's superb, ending "You've just watched the new film by Brian De Palma. Want another look ?"

There are subtitles in English, French and Spanish and the film is divided into 29 chapter stops.

I'll finish by saying once more that this is a film which matters to anyone who loves movies. I unreservedly recommend it, flaws and all, and, given that it's yet to receive a UK theatrical release, this DVD is well worth buying.

9 out of 10
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