Monday, February 21, 2011

The Morality of Noir: Femme Fatale

This is my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Nehme of Self-Styled Siren, in what I sincerely hope is becoming a yearly tradition. Be sure to click the button at the bottom of this post and donate what you can - every penny counts. For a poignant (if I do say so myself) reminder of the rich history lost with every destroyed film, read my contribution to last year's blogathon, on the sad fate of many of the films shot in my hometown of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale can be viewed as the director's personal essay on film noir, a great movie artist taking what he responds to most about a genre and applying to it his perspective on morality, ethics, and politics. This is not to say De Palm'a film "elevates" the genre or should be viewed apart from noir in any way - the noir elements recontextualize De Palma, not the other way around. De Palma, so frequently trivialized as a mere Hitchcock plagiarist/imitator, can be thought of as an American Godard as well, in that a considerable element of his artistic identity is analyzing the morality of cinema.

Proper film noir could certainly be viewed as a moral movement in American film - more or less all film noirs deal with people who are rotten to some degree, and many are blatant morality plays - but I feel that can be reductive as it implies that there was some kind of unified aesthetic, which I don't think has ever been the case in mainstream American movies. These stories were told because they were popular for a time, reflecting a desire to be "bad" vicariously within the safe confines of a movie theater; to get a glimpse into a sleazy underworld of detectives, criminals, beautiful women, sex, and violence. With Femme Fatale, De Palma similarly gives us a glimpse into that world, but as is typical of the film maker he forces you to think about what it means to watch.

And the very act of seeing has always been vital to even the weakest of De Palma's films - his elaborate camera work, extensive use of split screens, propensity for depicting voyeurism, and grounding in movie history aren't merely stylistic flourishes, they are examinations of perception, and Femme Fatale contains his greatest ruminations on the subject. Consider the director's often imitated but never equaled use of split screen in an early sequence, where one half of the screen is taken up by the tabloid photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) while he photographs Laure from his balcony, the other taken up by Laure's former accomplices as they watch her through a pair of binoculars from afar. One half of the screen depicts curiosity while the other half depicts resentment and rage; as with everything in life, it's all a matter or perspective.

Femme Fatale is undoubtedly a post-modern noir, a movie very much aware of film noir aesthetics and its place in cinema history. This is established masterfully in the film's opening shot, which shows the main character Laure (Rebecca Romijn, who was a Stamos at the time) watching Billy Wilder's seminal Double Indemnity on French television, and we see Laure's reflection superimposed over that of Barbara Stanwyck's standard setting femme fatale. Though you can't even begin to compare Romijn's acting abilities to that of Stanwyck's - who could literally do it all, and brilliantly - one thing they share is that neither woman is overwhelmingly beautiful, but each exudes sexuality. Watching them cast their feminine spells, one gets the impression that they're the ones in charge (perhaps no actress was ever better at being the sexual aggressor than Stanwyck) To put it bluntly, both chicks know how to work it, though naturally by virtue of working in post-code Hollywood De Palma is able to be much more frank about the film's sexual undercurrents.

Although Femme Fatale is ultimately a serious movie, it opens with De Palma at his most playful, though De Palma when he's playful is still as incisive as it gets. The picture opens with a heist, though the heist doesn't take place at a bank or a casino, but at the Cannes film festival. This sequence is both thrilling and satirical, and it plays as a "fuck you" to the film making establishment that De Palma has always remained on the outskirts of, in spite of his sporadic critical and financial success. The heist itself - of an outfit worn by a film director's date, made of gold that just barely covers her breasts, another hilarious gag that paints the film making establishment as decadently bourgeois - is a brilliant sequence, a visual symphony that showcases De Palma's incredible aesthetic sensibility and his inventive use of camera movement that establishes and explores cinematic space as radically as any director since Carl Dreyer.

What with Laure being cut from the classic femme fatale cloth, she fucks over the people in her gang of criminals and makes off with the loot herself. She disguises herself, is found anyway, and is thrown off a high railing by a pissed off ex-accomplice, and when she hits the ground a couple mistakes her for their troubled, suicidal daughter and takes her home with them. If all this sounds contrived it is, but here De Palma is taking the classic mistaken identity element of film noir and making it genuinely, profoundly existential. She walks around their home, sees pictures of the daughter she has been mistaken for, in effect getting a glimpse into a life. Again, it is the very act of seeing portrayed as a reflection of human experience.

And this is the point when the film dives down the rabbit hole, morphing from thriller to metaphysical examination of existence that invites comparison to David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Laure falls asleep in the bathtub and dreams that the real daughter comes home to kill herself, and she observes her suicide and follows through on stealing her identity, in effect transforming herself into another human being. She takes the dead girl's plane ticket to the United States, and as it turns out the plane was overbooked so she moves to first class where she winds up seated next to a kind, wealthy American, who she proceeds to marry. This is where De Palma begins exploring the concept of fate, which will play a vital role in the remainder of the picture.

Flash forward seven years - the wealthy American that Laure (who now goes by Lily) married has become the American ambassador to France (in a touch typical of the politically charged De Palma, there are implications that he purchased the Ambassadorship), so she finds herself back in France and doing everything she can to hide her identity, lest her ex-accomplices find her ("Bad people read newspapers, too", she remarks late in the film). An interested party calls on Nicolas to find a way to take her photograph, and he manages to sneak a picture of her by pretending to have been hit by the Ambassador's car, which ignites a cat and mouse game between the two.

And naturally this interplay between the two becomes not just a battle of the sexes but a battle of sex itself, culminating in a sexually charged fever dream that allows De Palma to put on full display the themes of latent sexuality that true noir had to mask. After taking her picture Nicolas tracks Laure down in a hotel room and finds her with a pistol, and tries to stop her from committing suicide; he convinces himself that she's a damsel in distress and he's her savior, but really she's one step ahead of him and manipulating him every step of the way - in typical De Palma fashion, the woman is the one in charge and the man is powerless, in effect emasculated. Laure never planned to kill herself, she wanted him to take the gun away from her, and the moment he steps out onto the streets she calls the police, reports a bogus crime, and has him arrested. The hopelessly masculine desire to save the beautiful woman blows up in Nicolas' face.

While he was under arrest, Laure sends an e-mail from Nicolas' computer to her husband telling him that she's been kidnapped and demands a ten million dollar ransom for her return. He comes home and discovers this, and realizes that he's essentially fucked and has no choice but to go along with her plan. He meets her on a bridge overlooking the Parisian skyline, and she uses her sexuality in an attempt to lure him into going along with her plan. She takes him to a bar, and in this sequence De Palma fully explores the themes of emasculation and voyeurism, depicting sex itself as an expression of gender power dynamics, hostility, and attraction. Once again, Laure uses the masculine desire to protect against Nicolas, putting herself in a position where a man will be forceful with her so Nicolas can step in to save her. He beats up the would-be rapist, and then proceeds to have aggressive sex with Laure - she thinks he's fallen into her trap, and he thinks she's fallen into his, as he records her saying that the whole kidnapping plot was her idea.

On the bridge, with Nicolas in kidnapper attire, the Ambassador arrives with a briefcase full of cash, and Nicolas tries to explain the truth of what's happening. Laure shoots the Ambassador and turns around and shoots Nicolas, and as she walks over to Nicolas to shoot him one more time, her ex-accomplices grab her and, as they did in the beginning, throw her over the railing. As it did the first time, being thrown from a high distance begets a rebirth, as she lands in the river and is suddenly naked, and it's clear that she's not actually in the river but in the bathtub once again. This is a deeply, profoundly spiritual moment - a linking of life, death, and dreams that examines the infinite depth of a single instant.

Laure awakes in the bathtub suddenly, as every movie character in history does from a nightmare. Once again, the real Lily comes in to kill herself, but only this time Laure stops her and informs her that, in spite of how awful things may seem, a great life awaits her - all she has to do is get on that plane. Laure needed to see how awful things would get before she made the moral decision to change her life, to not indulge her desire to fuck over everyone, to cease being an archetypal femme fatale and to become a true human being. While the film acknowledges fate as a spiritual precept, De Palma also seems to be saying that we're ultimately the ones in control of our destiny - Laure writes Lily's future by telling her to get on the plane, and ultimately her commitment to changing her ways will bring her to her true love, Nicolas, who is the only character in the movie who has proved to be her intellectual (and sexual) equal.

Femme Fatale is simultaneously De Palma paying homage to film noir and expanding it by expressly highlighting the moral, political, sexual, and spiritual elements of it. De Palma has always been a director with an aesthetic deeply rooted in genre and film history, and Femme Fatale may contain his most pronounced analysis of each, as the genre is a perfect vehicle for his sensibilities. By looking to cinema's past, De Palma found an eminently beautiful way to relate out history to our present.