Femme Fatale

It's deja vu all deja vu again
Brian De Palma
Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney
The Setup: 
Woman makes off with $10 million in jewels… then has to decide how to conduct the rest of her life.

This is among the most abstract of De Palma’s films. Apparently burned by the drubbing he took over Mission To Mars [still haven’t found the strength within myself to revisit that one], he took off to Paris, where he got financing to make whatever the fuck movie he wanted to make; which is why I was so psyched to see it when it originally came out. I remember being pleasantly confused by it after seeing it in the theater, and quite impressed. This time I was a little less enthusiastic.

Let it be said, as often has to be said with De Palma films, at the start; if you’re looking for a straight-ahead thriller with a plot, story, characters, etc., you’re definitely in the wrong place with this one. This one, even more than Raising Cain [the last film before this one, ten years prior, to be written by him alone], is for admirers of his technique only. The story here comes in a solid… what, fifth?

The opening shot makes a statement by showing a clip from classic Noir Double Indemnity, featuring Barbara Stanwyck—perhaps cinema’s most notorious Femme Fatale. We can see Romijn’s reflection in the screen. The film is cleverly telling us both that this film is a conscious updating of the Noir film, and that Romijn is the modern incarnation of the femme fatale. So far we’re all on board!

Then we enter this 20-minute signature De Palma setpiece, the heist of a $10M jeweled bra in the form of a snake that is being worn by a director’s girlfriend. Romijn throws a look at the girlfriend and lures her into a sexual tryst in a bathroom [at this point you’re like: ‘this entire heist depends on whether or not the girlfriend takes the bait?’]. There they have hot girl-on-girl action while a number of other agents are going about their work separately—it’s very much like the Langley break-in from De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. My favorite De Palma touch here is a random cat that bats at a long camera being extended across a room. Meanwhile Romijn is seductively removing the jewels from the model and dropping them to the floor—where her associate is reaching between their feet and replacing the real ones with replicas. Then, at the last moment, we see Romijn double-cross her fellow thieves by switching the diamond bras. The whole sequence is obviously aiming to be one of De Palma’s more audacious set-pieces… only for me, it doesn’t really come off. There’s just something in the timing that keeps it from coming alive for me [many critics and IMDb commentators are very effusive about it] compared to some of the other brilliant set-pieces in the De Palma canon, such as the Dressed to Kill museum sequence, Carrie’s walk to the stage, or the hospital room scene from Raising Cain. Even the Langley break-in from Mission: Impossible had me on the edge of my seat, whereas this one didn’t really even raise my pulse. Maybe… because it’s trying so hard?

We then meet Antonio Banderas as paparazzo Nicholas Bardo. He lives across from this church in Paris, which he has assembled into a giant photo montage on one of his walls. Across from the church is a café, where Romijn, hair now dyed dark, is meeting with the model from the heist—they were in on it together—but soon the model is killed by a truck. Romijn hides in the church, but apparently she looks exactly like the vanished daughter of this couple in the church, so they’re after her, and follow her to this airport hotel, where she’s confronted by one of her betrayed heist-mates, who throws her off a balcony to the hotel lobby below! She is taken home by the old couple who think she’s their daughter. Confused yet? And it’s only beginning.

She wakes up alone in their house and takes a bath. She falls asleep in the bath, and is awakened by their real daughter, home and looking for her passport and ticket to the US [which Romijn has stolen]. The daughter then shoots herself! Romijn takes her ticket and meets a US Congressman on the plane, while pretending to be a desperate French girl, and then we see a title… SEVEN YEARS LATER!

So Romijn, who has changed her name from Laure to Lily, has been living as this congressman’s wife [and faking a French accent every moment for 7 years!], but now he’s an ambassador to Paris, meaning his wife has to keep her identity hidden, so the thugs looking for her don’t know who she is. Banderas as Bardo takes her picture, and plasters it all over Paris. You will also notice posters being put up for a show called “Deja Vue.” The next hour is this whole thing where Romijn uses Bardo to make it look like he kidnapped her so she can extort money from the ambassador, so she can take that money and disappear. That whole sentence summarizes the middle hour of the movie, until….

The evil thugs who have been after Romijn since she cheated them out of the jewels show up and dump her in the river. When she comes up—she’s back in the bathtub! It was ALL A MOTHERFUCKING DREAM!! Then her doppelganger comes in again—remember all those posters for “Deja Vue?”—and this time Romijn convinces her NOT to shoot herself, but to get on the plane and meet the Congressman and really be his wife. She does, and on the way, she gives a jewel of hers to a truck driver, saying he should hang it from his mirror. Then we’re back at the café again, Romijn meeting with her model friend from the beginning, and the truck-crash scene begins to play out again, only this time the events have changed—the jewel the now-surviving Romijn-clone gave the truck driver flashes in his eyes, so now the model isn’t killed, but the thugs, setting Romijn free. She meets Banderas [as though for the first time] and the implication is that now that she’s free of being a femme fatale, they might be able to have a relationship. The final shot is of the photo-montage in Bardo’s apartment.

So what does it all mean? I think it is a personal processing of De Palma’s entire career to date. You have all of his trademarks; beautifully-calibrated set-pieces, split screens, doubled figures, beautiful, deadly women, etc. The difference is that this time, rather than characters facing an inevitable fate [a la Obsession], in this movie the doubling serves to open a window of opportunity for one of the characters to change something, and although you have everything inextricably linked, her action ends up changing her own fate. And this action came as a result of this femme fatale thinking through the implications of her actions, deciding that maybe it’s not too great to be a femme fatale after all. But in the end, rather than being bound to her inevitable fate, as in most De Palma movies, he allows her to change and escape her “destiny.” All of this is a very sharp turn from the De Palma of yore—not least because here we have a woman who is not doomed by her sexuality and dark impulses, but is allowed experience them, change her mind, and in the end be set free.

There is also the whole meta-angle of this movie as a metaphor for the creation of films. The whole thing is located within the realm of film by the opening sequence at Cannes. Then the issue of fate as it relates to cinema is explored, represented symbolically through Bardo’s photo-montage of the church. Each photo represents a “moment,” that can be assembled to form an overall picture [or film]. Assemble it one way and you get one result… by the end we see that key “moments” have been changed, and this results in a different final image, presenting Romijn, dressed in white, looking outward toward a number of new possibilities. In here also is all that “Deja Vue” stuff, inviting us to look at the footage or events we have seen before, but to have a different relation to them this time. So I think all that is in there as well.

So with all that going on, a rabid De Palma fan like me really wants to like it; yet on second viewing I think it’s a little weaker then I originally thought it was. As I said, the opening showstopper doesn’t really sing for me. Then Romijn herself is a little too obtuse as our heroine, it’s hard to know exactly where to place her, as she doesn’t really inhabit her character; it doesn’t seem like she’s really thinking all this stuff, just acting out a script. Nevertheless, one admires the can-do pluck of a former model previously asked to only deliver variations on being nude suddenly being presented with this big, juicy part, and diving into it whole-hog. As for the rest, the variations in plot and pacing are never really electrifying, more just confusing and academic. So the entire thing, while admirable, is kept at an emotional distance. If you’re a De Palma fan, you had better watch this, but even the most rabid fan may be a left a little cold.

Should you watch it: 

Essential for De Palma fans, but even they may not enjoy it so much as admire it. Anyone else, especially those looking for a tight, exciting thriller plot, are advised to stay away.