From Brian De Palma, Master of the Erotic Thriller.
I disagree somewhat with the tagline: I found Femme Fatale neither erotic nor thrilling. Brian De Palma has accomplished both in his career, but fell short with this effort. The plot is incoherent, propped up on tired elbows named cliché and retread. The plodding pace, lulling soundtrack, and stiff acting do not help. Worse is the undertone of desperation. Brian De Palma is a great director, but Femme Fatale is a dud.
Facts of the Case
Laure Ash (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) pulls off a stunning double-cross by pulling off diamond-laced clothes at Cannes. She barely escapes capture when she is mistaken for a grieving widow who looks just like her. Granted a new lease on life, she assumes the woman's identity and flees to America. But fate brings her back to France, where she is photographed by a tabloid photographer, Nicolas (Antonio Banderas). With her picture in the press, Laure must confront her past and use the unwitting Nicolas to save herself.
There will be spoilers in this review, because I just don't feel like walking on egg shells tonight. Eighty percent of the problems with Femme Fatale can be explained with one line: written by Brian De Palma . The technique is fine, the premise is fine, the general execution is fine. What isn't fine is the plot, the characters, the believability, and dignity of the film.
I oscillated between pique and laughter while watching Femme Fatale. The much-ballyhooed heist is ludicrous. Laure seduces a bored model wearing a $10 million outfit. She somehow gets the girl into a steamy shower past throngs of guards and takes off the top. An accomplice feeds a replica of the garment under the shower stall and leaves with the real one. Or does he? At just that moment, a guy who rappelled down a fan shaft with a little laser beam thingy fries the power and kills the lights. Rebecca puts on her night vision goggles and walks right out with the real top.
There are so many plot holes in just this brief section of the film that I gave up trying to detect the nuances. Never mind that the heist genre traditionally demands perceptive viewing. It doesn't matter, because the opening heist is ignored for the remainder of the film.
After her brilliant double-cross, which would take a keen analytical mind, Laure flees to her well-known hang out and gets caught immediately. But wait! It just so happens that she is apprehended near people who know her. Well, not her exactly, but a woman who looks precisely like her. She is saved through a case of mistaken identity. What clever storytelling! I could go on, but the point is pretty blunt: the plot sucks.
I wish I could say that the characters make up for it. As attractive as she is, I suspect Rebecca Romjin-Stamos can't act. Femme Fatale did nothing to disprove that suspicion. Her lines are delivered with such a hoarse, wooden deadpan that I experienced pique and laughter simultaneously. It's a chicken/egg thing: does her delivery suck because the writing is so bad, or does the writing seem bad because of her delivery? I'm conservatively going with both.
Antonio Banderas adds little to the film, but it is hard to blame him. First of all, he is clothed in a cheesy leather jacket that strips his dignity. Second, he is given a patchwork of cardboard characterizations that he must somehow weave into a whole person. It is no wonder that he and Rebecca generate absolutely no heat together. He is but a pawn in her tawdry little ruse.
That's right, Laure is using him in a Machiavellian über-scheme. Everything he does, Rebecca has foreseen a day in advance. She must be the smartest woman on the face of the planet. With this level of strategic insight, she could wage world wars and conquer Canada, at least. But even with all of her ultra-suave, rotten-to-the-core machinations, the past catches up to her and she is killed!
Ha Ha! Got you! It was actually all a dream! You shoulda seen your faces, ho-boy! Really, the last 45 minutes didn't take place!
Good one, Brian, I truly did not see that one coming. It was all a dream. Okay. So she hasn't really escaped, and we're back seven years in time. So what really happens, for real this time?
Well, pretty much what happened the first time around. She meets the same people and has most of the same experiences. But because of her freaky psychic experience, Laure is able to avoid the mistakes that she dreamed an hour ago in the bathtub. Have I lost any of you? More importantly, do you want to see such a plot in action?
I'm being too harsh. Cinematic history is full of movies with questionable plot and poor characterizations…they succeed via intense eroticism. Femme Fatale must be one of those films.
Sadly, no. The opening is moderately steamy if you ignore the ridiculous premise. Enough to build on at least. So build, damnit! Build your erotic castles of writhing flesh and piercing gazes. Show us wild things, summon our wanton lust, provoke our basic instinct.
Ahh…Basic Instinct. Wild Things. Two films that have recently eclipsed De Palma's steamier past films. I stated before that I hinted desperation in Femme Fatale. De Palma's films haven't been critically acclaimed of late. What is more fundamentally erotic than the classic femme fatale? Could this be the rationale behind Femme Fatale? Unfortunately, the aforementioned films (and Mullholland Drive, which is also heavily referenced) are far more successful. They are tighter and take bigger risks.
I have no doubt that Brian de Palma has more great film waiting inside. He needs to go one of two ways: throw caution to the wind and create an edgy masterpiece, or explore subtler, deeper, more personal messages.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film has undeniable style. The camerawork is smooth and eclectic. If you enjoy cinematic trickery and innovative camerawork, there is a lot to like here. The two cases of split-frame were intrusive and unnecessary, but otherwise the visual elements helped the film along.
The same can mostly be said for the transfer. There was noticeable grain and edge enhancement, with occasional softness. The colors were natural and saturated (at times glowingly), and the shadow detail was quite good. The transfer is not stellar, but it is good.
The music was moody and understated. It had the unfortunate effect of making the pace seem even more languid and slow. Had the plot or characters added any kind of tension, the soundtrack would have struck the perfect note of suspense. The mix dwells primarily in the front speakers, with little action or variety.
The extras package is quite thorough. There are four features, a cast bio, and two trailers. Impressive. The extras were somewhat hard to sit through, since they all showed the same footage and gave the same basic information. After watching the movie and the extras, I had seen a handful of scenes seven times. Unless the scene happens to be Sharon Stone's interrogation scene, this is just too much.
De Palma fans will undoubtedly like Femme Fatale more than I did. However, I caution anyone who wants to pick up this movie to rent it first. It promises so much, but fails to deliver.
For breach of contract, Brian De Palma is sentenced to 90 days without bail. He is banned from further writing efforts. Rebecca and Antonio get a warning. Warner Brothers is granted immunity given their stellar record of service to the DVD community. Court adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• From Dream to Reality -- Discussing the Director and Cinematographer's Approach in Creating the Film's Look
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