Movies are never so much fun as when they contain an element of the disreputable. The appeal of cheap, trashy movies, with their fantasies of sex and violence, is that they lure us in with the promise of the pleasurable forbidden. A lurid and colorful Italian horror movie, a slick piece of Eurotrash exploitation, a shoot'em-up from Korea or Hong Kong can go directly to our pleasure center in ways that worthy, virtuous, dull movies can't. Movies can of course be so much more than genre and exploitation pictures. But there's an immense, nearly sexual satisfaction in movies that haven't lost touch with the tawdry sources that give movies their particular, visceral energy.
A master of the medium who exults in trickery and sex appeal, Brian De Palma takes the stuff of cheap movies and invests them with a wicked luster. In his dazzling and luxuriant new thriller "Femme Fatale," De Palma turns trash into chic. It's a sexy, violent, glamorous, sinfully funny movie with a surface as hard and brilliant as diamonds. De Palma has never been shy about putting his sex fantasies on screen. The sensual possibilities of movies get him buzzing with excitement, and he doesn't hesitate to indulge his own rapturous voyeurism -- or to encourage ours.
De Palma delights in giving his kinky daydreams the most chic settings imaginable. Here, it's Paris (where the director has lived for several years). Watching "Femme Fatale" is like being given a plush, comfy seat at the swankiest peep show in town. It's a supremely relaxing turn-on. You sink into the luxury of the movie even as you're watching in anticipation to see where it will go next. It's easy to imagine De Palma eager to get to the set each day to unleash some sinuous camera move, to hear an actor deliver an outlandish piece of dialogue, to devise new ways of pulling the rug out from under the audience.
Yet his technique is the opposite of flashy. De Palma has been making movies for 40 years now, and he's never stopped developing and transforming his favorite devices -- split screen, slow motion, cameras that prowl the sets in long, unbroken shots. The confidence he has long shown has only deepened with each new movie. He has mastered the assurance that is the true mark of sophisticated moviemaking. In "Femme Fatale" De Palma is comparable to the sly prankster Luis Buñuel proved himself to be in "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." De Palma makes a joke of our gullibility and gets us to laugh at how easy it is to be suckered -- and how much fun it is.
"Femme Fatale" makes the link to movie-fed fantasies explicit from the get-go. The picture's first shot is the femme fatale of the title, Laure (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), reflected in a TV set watching the apotheosis of femme fatales, Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity." When the curtains of her hotel room open, we're looking out onto the red carpet as stars arrive for the gala opening of the Cannes Film Festival. Laure is part of a gang of thieves who are aiming to steal a jewel-encrusted serpent that a sleek model (Rie Rasmussen) is wearing to the festival as a barely-there halter top. (With that gold serpent curling around her torso, Rasmussen is like Eve reimagined for a Vogue layout.)
Of course, things don't go as planned, and Laure winds up on the run from her partners. She resurfaces as Lily, the French wife of an American ambassador (Peter Coyote). A tabloid editor who has noticed that no one has a picture of Lily hires Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), a deeply in-debt photographer, to obtain one. He does, and Laure/Lily sets out to salvage her cover.
It would be spoiling the fun to describe any more of the plot than that, except to say it operates on a very high level of game playing. "Femme Fatale" has a generic noirish title, but its naughty sense of fun and of the sexiness of danger winds up making most noir seem rather prim. The sentimentality of noir derives from the cruel twists of fate suffered by the losers and no-accounts who populate the genre. De Palma is too much of a satirist to easily give himself over to the doomed romantic fatalism of noir (though when he did, in "Carlito's Way," he came close to making the "Casablanca" of his generation). He uses noir conventions to make a grand joke about fate, to find yet another way of upsetting the audience's expectations, something in which he has specialized.
De Palma's grand jokes are not always to everyone's taste, of course. The nasty ends De Palma has devised for some of his characters (especially the characters with whom we've been made to identify) have struck some moviegoers as indiscriminate meanness. I would argue that for thrillers to be truly effective, we have to have a sense of our own vulnerability. Part of making audiences feel that vulnerability is making them aware of how movie conventions have always spared the good and innocent. "Femme Fatale" is the first movie he's made in which fate can not only be cruel but also fortuitous, as liable to deliver a windfall as a disaster.
If the confident tone, which is both cooled down and heated up, sometimes seems to make the movie less urgent than we expect a thriller to be, we're never bored because De Palma's command of moviemaking provides its own kind of suspense. We're accustomed to De Palma's providing his movies with knockout openings, and "Femme Fatale" is no exception. The jewel heist, which involves a steamy seduction, a good, corrupt security guard, and a mischievous kitty cat, is laid out like a mosaic with the various elements coming inexorably together.
"Femme Fatale" is itself something of a mosaic. The photo collage that Banderas' Nicolas assembles out of snapshots of the Parisian street his apartment overlooks (it looks rather like David Hockney's experiments in photo collage) is a visual metaphor for the movie -- an overview assembled out of bits and pieces. In one of the movie's most breathtaking shots we see a split screen of the actual street next to Nicolas' collage. It's a neat metaphor for the split between art and life, between what we think we see and what's actually there.
That theme -- the division between reality and image -- has grown increasingly important for De Palma. His last three movies, "Mission: Impossible" "Snake Eyes," and "Mission to Mars," were, I think, all concerned with how we see, and particularly how we watch movies. He is obsessed with reminding us that information is not the same thing as knowledge. "Snake Eyes" opened with an unbroken 19-minute tracking shot that laid out the plot. The rest of the movie was a demonstration of why everything we had seen in that sequence was a lie. The opening sequence of "Mission: Impossible" showed us Tom Cruise's crew of agents being picked off one by one. We had already seen each of those murders, though, in nearly subliminal blips during the movie's credit sequence (information without knowledge). The criminally maligned "Mission to Mars" contained meditations on the inability of cameras to faithfully record reality that were comparable to similar musings in the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker.
We are constantly being misled in "Femme Fatale." De Palma drops only the slyest hints, such as a quick glimpse of Millais' famous painting of Ophelia, to clue us in to what's actually going on. All of his familiar visual trademarks are here -- the slow motion, the split screen, the prevalence of cameras (photographers are everywhere in the movie). And so are his motifs of doubling, of division and melding. It's a playful movie, but De Palma's technique is its own sort of meat, so far beyond what other directors are capable of that their most sincere movies can seem like trifles in comparison. Befitting a director who keeps reminding us how easily our eyes can deceive us, "Femme Fatale" is a demonstration of the seductiveness of surfaces.
It's a ravishing-looking movie. Using Luc Besson's cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, De Palma renders Paris as the meeting place of traditional European elegance and cold high-tech. It's an autumnal-looking movie heated by a low, steady smolder. It's also one of the great clothes movies of all time. Among the designers who contributed to the movie are Valentino, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana, Thierry Mugler, Prada, Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. When De Palma switches into slow motion for a chase sequence, it might be so he can admire the trademark red soles of a fleeing woman's Christian Louboutin boots.
Considering that women have so often been the victims in De Palma's movies, it might seem odd for him to make a movie where the femme is fatale. But the charges of misogyny that feminists have loved to lob at him ignored the fact that De Palma's sympathies were always with the women. His great recurring theme of tortured male chivalry, the man who is unable to save the woman, reflected a deep ambivalence about traditional masculinity (and the way the movies have taught us to worship it). That theme underwent a grand twist in "Mission to Mars," where the man had to sacrifice himself in order to save the women. And I wonder how many people will notice that, in "Femme Fatale," women save the lives of other women again and again. Among the things he's playing with here is the archetypal noir figure of the killer woman.
De Palma winds up giving us a reason to like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's Laure, though he doesn't need to. Goody-goody heroines have never fared well on screen, and Laure is so deliciously bad that she wins our hearts immediately. "I'm a bad, bad girl," she says to Banderas at one point, and we're in no position to argue. De Palma is obviously using Romijn-Stamos here for her gorgeous looks, the slightly wide mouth, and the hint of mischief in her eyes that keeps her from being a bland all-American beauty. Swaddled in furs and a scarf, she can look like Kim Novak in "Vertigo." Kitted out in leather and sublimely slinky La Perla undies, she's the baddest hooch-bar hottie.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of Romijn-Stamos as strictly a stunning camera subject. There's a fearless bravado to this performance, an unselfconscious willingness to be naughty and sexy and provocative in a way that more established actresses, conscious of their public image, might avoid. Laure is in charge and Romijn-Stamos isn't scared to wield that authority. She gets a charge from it. She manages some parodic fun when Laure, a great con woman in addition to a great thief, plays a French fille in distress (it also ties right in to De Palma's loathing of the sap movies push on us). When she laughs in delight as two men beat each other up over her, she's the naughtiest kitten imaginable. Romijn-Stamos matches up perfectly with Banderas, who proves once again that he's at his sexiest when he's being funny (and that he's never more endearing than when he's being besieged). Their encounters have real heat, and the way she takes charge of the situation is marvelously raunchy. (It's a neat joke that she's taller than he is.)
The affection De Palma shows Romijn-Stamos here has to do with her being the on-screen equivalent of the role he has long played behind the camera: a trickster. It's in the movie's climax that De Palma shows just how much of a trickster he can be. Among other things, the finale is a joke on the twist endings that some recent hits have foisted, straight-faced, on their audiences. He includes an uncharacteristically sentimental scene only to give it a deadly little fillip in what follows.
De Palma has said that he thinks part of the reason "Mission to Mars" fared so poorly with critics and audiences was because people couldn't accept optimism from him. Here, he's found a way to combine optimism with the slyness that is his forte. De Palma gives us a happy ending that is also one of his great sick jokes. Maybe that's the type of happy ending closest to his heart. In any event, you couldn't be blamed for purring with contentment. In the world of "Femme Fatale," we're all naughty kitty cats.