Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale” begins with a close-up of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) being shown on TV, the reflection of the film’s lead, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), visible on screen.
The title appears at the sound of a gun blast and the camera slowly slinks backwards, revealing Romjin-Stamos (hereafter Romjin, as she now goes by) to be on a hotel bed, killing time before a heist taking place during the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
Leave it to De Palma to begin his 2002 film with a grand gesture, especially for such a small scene and the first moment of his film. It’s a warmup for how audacious this gets, as the filmmaker forever tied together with words like “controversial” and “Hitchcockian” lacks both timidity and any impulse to reign things in.
In the scene that follows, Ash’s role in an elaborate jewel heist involves seducing an actress at a world premiere screening, while the other thieves dangle in an air duct, wait on the other side of a bathroom stall and even try to keep a curious feline from sabotaging a different part of the operation.
Like the plot of “Femme Fatale” overall, it’s completely ridiculous but presented in such a grand, take-it-or-leave-it manner and staged with the masterful precision one expects from De Palma, the implausibility of it barely registers.
Of course, there must be easier ways to steal 500 diamonds worth $10 million dollars, but De Palma, whose brilliant, under-appreciated “Mission: Impossible” (1996) got the franchise to a roaring start, has choreographed a caper so nutty, it’s doubtful even Ethan Hunt could have pulled it off.
The sequence is set to a fantastic Ryuchi Sakamoto score that sounds like Ravell’s “Bolero” at times and like a sinister cousin to “The Shining” (1980) at others. Most films would end with a segment like this, whereas De Palma is all but assuring his audience, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
After the bravura opener, we follow Laura as she escapes her murderous colleagues and finds herself in the care of a couple who confuse her for someone else. A case of mistaken identity becomes a golden opportunity, as Laura becomes Lily.
Seven years pass, and we discover that Lily is now the wife of a powerful politician and keeping a low profile. Nicolas, a paparazzi photographer, played by Antonio Banderas, has been assigned to take a picture of the allusive Lily and, in doing so, threatens to upend her effective ruse.
Visuals and themes from De Palma’s aforementioned “Mission: Impossible” (1996), “Blow-Out” (1981) and “Raising Cain” (1992) surface, which gave critics cause to accuse the director of simply repeating himself.
Of course, when Sting plays his greatest hits, he gets a standing ovation but when De Palma does it, the poison pens come clicking to life.
Roger Ebert gave it a 4-star review and called it one of De Palma’s best films. The film has been developing a cult status among cinephiles; even Warner Bros added this film to Warner Archive Collection.
— NeoText (@NeoText_Films) March 18, 2021
Here’s the thing: for a filmmaker who has been both celebrated and excoriated for evoking Alfred Hitchcock in his approach to film craftmanship, few are on De Palma’s level. If this is what applying the style of The Master of Suspense to one’s own approach to moviemaking, then everyone else is either imitating Hitchcock to lesser effect of imitating De Palma imitating Hitchcock.
Look no further than Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” (1992), which steals wholesale from De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” (1981). I find De Palma’s films as easy to defend as they are to love, though not all of his films are as good as “Femme Fatale.”
Another thing about De Palma – he made “Raising Cain,” a delicious medley of his greatest hits and “Psycho” (1960), after the gigantic flop of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990). “Femme Fatale,” in a similar way, is back-to-basics but also a showy, full throttle return to form.
His prior film, “Mission to Mars” (2000) was a big disappointment but this, his comeback, is sly and sure footed. If “Femme Fatale” is simply an “exercise,” then it’s a full leg, arm, torso and upper body workout.
Whereas younger filmmakers demonstrate their control of cinema through ample use of CGI, De Palma, like an inventive child with thousands of carefully placed dominos, can dazzle you, time and time again, by designing, choreographing and staging his scenes with a dancer’s precision.
De Palma is a maestro. Did I mention I’m a fan?
FAST FACT: De Palma said he hired Romijn late in the casting process, sold on a key ability his lead actress demanded. She had to be “devastatingly sexy,” the director said.
Initially, Romjin doesn’t seem to have a hard enough edge to play the demanding title role; when she tells Banderas, “I’m a bad girl, Nicolas, really bad,” you don’t fully believe her.
It isn’t until the extended bar scene that follows where we fully witness how dangerous and casually cruel she is: when she cheers on Nicolas as he beats a would-be rapist, Romjin’s inviting smile appears downright evil. I’m unsure if Romjin is a great actress, but she’s great in this.
Banderas is typically suave and enjoyable here, though this is Romjin’s movie. De Palma regular Greg Henry pops up and so does Peter Coyote and, in a sharp vocal cameo, John Stamos.
The climax (there’s a few of them actually) has a remarkable underwater shot, which reconnects us to the first act, and is so well done, it made me forgive what a gross contrivance the third act is.
In fact, I suspect De Palma is aware of this and couldn’t care less. As pure cinema, these scenes of outright showmanship (of which most of “Femme Fatale” is) eclipse the limitations of the plot. De Palma’s mapping out and delivery of these intricate and uncanny moments remain impeccable.
Most of Romjin’s performance is a put-on; when she’s finally unleashed in the third act, the movie gets an additional, carnal charge. While some of De Palma’s films have been accused of being misogynist (particularly the 1984 “Body Double,” of which I’m not a fan), that doesn’t apply here.
There are misogynistic characters in “Femme Fatale” but the film is on Laura/ Lily’s side and celebrates her ability to survive by shifting identities.
In 2002, audiences and especially critics who were predisposed to dislike the latest “from the director of ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Untouchables’” (such a far reach back for a contemporary movie poster) pushed the film out of theaters after a few weeks. Twenty years later, “Femme Fatale” hasn’t lost it bite and is among De Palma’s cheekiest and most accomplished works.
I suspect Hitchcock himself would have adored it.