Brian De Palma is a masterful director. His opening sequence is ten minutes of intense suspense. Some bad acting, lecherous nudity, and a lack of focus counterbalance the moments of brilliance, leaving Femme Fatale as merely average fare.
R for Sexuality, violence, language
Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is the point man on a heist team. The heist goes bad, but she manages to escape with some of the loot. A David Lynch twist of fate lands her in another woman’s shoes, and Laure becomes Lily. She leaves for America to start a new life.
Femme Fatale cuts to “7 years later,” when Lily is returning to France with her husband, an ambassador. This is also when her heist teammates are being released from prison. A paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) snaps a picture of the reclusive Lily, and she knows that if her former teammates see the published picture, they will come after her.
Meanwhile, Nicolas (Banderas) regrets having taken Lily’s picture. He knows she’s been physically abused since his picture was published. He approaches her and tries to atone for what he did.
Lily sees Nicolas as the perfect patsy, and uses him to throw her fellow heisters off her trail and maybe extort a little money as well.
A further Lynchian twist gratuitously spins the film off in a new direction toward a new ending.
Just One Small Hitch
De Palma has been compared to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Largely, the comparison is apt and deserved. The opening scene, for example, is outstanding. Each member of the team, and the plan for the heist itself, is introduced with very little dialogue. De Palma knows how to show, not tell.
The scene is glued together with a musical score similar to The Bolero, with that same insistent repeated rhythm that manages to grow in intensity over the entire duration of the heist. The suspense is outstanding.
The final scene is also incredibly suspenseful (although it has been made irrelevant by a twist in the plot). The fatalistic collision of four lives is revealed in slow motion. The sense of tragic fate, moving toward an unstoppable ending, is almost agonizing.
But De Palma borrows from another director, David Lynch. The Lynchian twists — the one that turns Laure into Lily and the one that changes her back — simply don’t work with the rest of the film. They are interesting ideas but they seem tacked-on. De Palma should be striving toward Hitch, not Lynch. A more straightforward treatment, or even its opposite, one with a greater fascination with the mysterious hand of fate, would have made a more consistent film.
One of Hitchcock’s favorite themes was voyeurism. Rear Window is a case in point, in which Jimmy Stewart witnesses a murder while spying on his neighbors. And who can forget the shower scene in Psycho, which includes a peeping Norman?
De Palma too is a master of voyeurism. One can’t even imagine a narrator in Femme Fatale because that would require a central point of view. The only consistent point of view is someone, seeing but unseen, watching the illicit and illegal goings-on of the film’s characters. In every scene, De Palma makes us feel like we’re voyeurs. His inclusion of a character who is a paparazzo is an acknowledgment of the theme.
Exhibitionism Defeats Voyeurism
But De Palma gets a little too carried away. He shows us too much, particularly when there’s any nudity or sex involved. The Rebecca Romijn-Stamos school of acting says that if you can’t act, act sultry and slutty. Because she is an exhibitionist, the thrill of voyeurism is gone.
A film whose title refers to the women of films noir, who use sex to get what they want, would be hard-pressed to make a sex scene gratuitous, but that’s exactly what De Palma does. The sex serves the story on the most superficial of levels. In the opening sequence, the diamond-studded dress might as well not exist for all it “covers.” The lesbian love scene in the bathroom is raunchy soft-core porn, as is the sex scene between Nicolas and Lily. Femme Fatale makes me feel like I need a nice clean shower.
Femme Fatale has some moments of brilliance. Suspense and voyeurism in particular are two of De Palma’s strong suits. For some, these flashes of mastery will be enough to make Femme Fatale worth seeing. Those seeking a solid, consistent film might prefer to stay in and rent a Hitchcock video.