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Femme Fatale

The stereotypical Christian movie reviewer is supposed to count up the swear words, cover his eyes at the violence, and loudly tsk-tsk whenever a hint of sexuality appears on screen. The Phantom Tollbooth takes a different approach, hoping to critically assess each movie in its context, understanding that a movie is much more than the sum of its language, blood content, and nudity.

That approach is a little difficult, however, with a movie like Femme Fatale. For this latest movie from Brian De Palma revels in its brief but powerful moments of violence, its emphatic use of the f-word, and its steamy, explicit sex scenes. It is a movie that is proudly adult in its content and assumes a mature audience. It's also exhilarating, absorbing, and gripping, a film that brilliantly deploys various cinematic techinques and conventions for maximum effect. I'm not sure I can recommend this to many Tollbooth readers, but I have to admit I had a great time watching it.

Brian De Palma, like David Lynch, wears his obsessions proudly. In early films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double to the more recent Snake Eyes, his Hitchcock fixation has rarely lurked far beneath the surface. Even in Mission: Impossible he tried to imitate the master's use of intelligent action and complicated set pieces to propel the audience along with the characters. While De Palma's failures have recently outranked his successes (the execrable Mission to Mars is only one example), Femme Fatale is wonderful return to form, a movie that deserves the adjective Hitchcockian.

The movie's story centers around Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a beautiful thief involved in a complicated plot to steal a diamond-encrusted blouse worth $10 million. Blouse is not quite the write word for it, as it's really just a serpent-shaped piece of jewelry that snakes around the lithesome woman wearing it, barely concealing what's supposed to be covered up.

The heist is set to take place at the Cannes Film Festival (more of De Palma's cinematic obsession on display). It involves an incredibly steamy lesbian sequence, brief spurts of striking violence, and a double cross worthy of Hollywood's long list of femme fatales (it's no accident that a shot of Double Indemnity opens the movie). Having screwed her partners, Laure must quickly escape, but that's of course easier said than done.

She gets lucky, however, when an older couple, who believe their daughter is dead, mistake Laure for her. Laure, seeing an opportunity to assume a new identity, jumps at the chance. Skip ahead seven years later, when Laure (now Lily) has to return to France, but her bitter compatriots haven't forgotten are still looking for her. Now she has to find a new way of outsmarting them. Maybe a clueless photographer named Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) can help.

Little of Femme Fatale is subtle, except for the plot. De Palma assumes an intelligent, adult audience--one that can wait patiently for all the twists and turns to be revealed, one that won't get uptight with a little confusion, a little uncertainty. He also cleverly hints at what's going on by using stock film conventions. The slow camera zoom indicates a dream,  the excessively bright light indicates blindness and lack of understanding. Admittedly, it's easier to catch these if you watch a lot of movies.

In that respect and many others, Femme Fatale is a moviegoers' movie. It dazzles with sleek camera movement, as it follows Rebecca Romijn-Stamos through the corridors of the convoluted plot. Its selective use of split screens is exhilarating, using the widescreen composition to brilliant effect. One scene in a church is particularly fantastic, as the split screen offers a point-of-view shot from Laure's perspective as well as a wider objective shot that reveals much more.

This emphasis on seeing and objectivity/subjectivity was, of course, a hallmark of Hitchcock's films. And De Palma takes that emphasis to obsessive levels. The film constantly reminds us that we're constantly watching and being watched. A camera takes a picture of us in the audience, another man looks through binoculars, the security cameras' presence ironically helps guide the criminals, Nicolas gets a picture by pretending to be blind and then later watches Laure put on a sexy strip tease, a clueless guard gets shot in the eye, and all the while everyone is watching though not always seeing. The same is true for us in the audience--we're sitting in a dark room watching just like everyone else--which is De Palma's larger point. Moviegoing as voyeurism. But are we really seeing?

You don't have to be a movie buff to appreciate Femme Fatale, though it helps. The acting isn't particularly strong. Romijn-Stamos is more famous as a model, and the movie largely treats her that way as she has relatively little dialogue. Banderas shines in his comic moments (he always does), but the brooding Spaniard isn't nearly as compelling in his serious scenes, though women in the audience might disagree.

But as a film, Femme Fatale is beautiful. Cinematographer Theirry Arbogast (The Fifth Element) uses a palette of silvers, metallic blues, whites, and blacks to create gorgeous compositions. For a movie about taking pictures, Femme Fatale's pictures are exquisite. One shot of Romijn-Stamos submerged in blue water as bubbles stream off her body is breathtaking, and not just for the men in the audience. And De Palma has rarely used slow motion to such great effect. There are two shots of characters falling through space that are strangely exhilarating, and a chase sequence shot from ground level is fantastic.

Femme Fatale is breathtaking in other ways. Its pace rarely flags, instead smoothly moving the audience through the story, punctuating it with spectacular set pieces that are miniature movies unto themselves. Femme Fatale holds our attention so that we start to forget we're watching a movie. We've entered a different, stranger, more interesting world. I don't think I'd want to live in De Palma's universe, but it's certainly a cool place to see. Now whether we should see it or not is a more difficult question.  

J. Robert Parks 11/13/2002



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