Femme Fatale is Brian De Palma’s last great film. Coming at the turn of the 21st century, De Palma, (always the enfant terrible of the New Hollywood set who took until the early 80s to hit his artistic peak) followed up the forgettable Mission to Mars by making a film that acts as a meditation on his entire career while concealed as a return to the Mission Impossible-esque action that had scored the director his biggest hit. It is a formally elegant, auteurist driven action film of the kind that would become increasingly diminished in the decade or so to come. It combines classically made, visual storytelling with unlikable characters and an increasingly obscure plot that is difficult to appreciate if one doesn’t have a working knowledge of film noir history and even De Palma’s own tropes. Probably for this reason, it was an enormous flop from which De Palma has not quite recovered, but Femme Fatale is a glorious mess of a film that at the very least demands to be seen on its own terms.
In the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, con artist Laure (Rebecca Romjin) attempts to escape Paris, finding herself lost in a game of doppelgangers and mistaken identity as several parties follow her, including Antonio Banderas’ sleazy paparazzo, who is determined to discover the truth of the situation. It is a plot that becomes ever more labyrinthine, begging you to lose the train and taunting you if you fall off. This is a film that is obsessed with screens. Characters watch each other through windows, glass doors, lenses, and televisions, of course. The first shot has the camera slowly pulling back from a TV playing Double Indemnity, an apt choice if ever there was one, to reveal Laure preparing for a big job at the Cannes Film Festival. We then cut to the red carpet and so begins a breathtaking and complex heist sequence that stands alongside Dressed to Kill’s Art Gallery scene and the first murder in Sisters as the best of De Palma’s career. It is not a sequence to spoil but needless to say a key part of the job involves using sex to distract security guards who gawp at a beautiful woman on a large screen while our conmen slip into the cinema unnoticed on the CCTV. Like every De Palma film, he focuses here on the act of looking, through sexual fantasy, morbid curiosity, or pure greed. Everyone is watching each other, and they are all playing a character.
Laure’s titular (or is she?) Femme Fatale adopts persona after persona, to the point where the audience may not actually feel that they know her until the last scene. This dramatic unpredictability seems like poor writing but it is all part of the film’s dream logic. De Palma separates us from true emotional connection with his use of screens, forcing us to infer meaning from the images much in the same way as the characters do. In effect, it is a filmmaking metaphor which examines the way in which we understand stories. This is taken even further with the third act twist, a turn that forces us to reevaluate the surrealism to which we have just borne witness and to live it again as certain scenes are restaged. It is almost De Palma’s version of Mulholland Dr., a comparison which may seem to do little justice to Femme Fatale’s more zany operation, but is apt in their shared gleeful unknowability and genre subversion.
There are moments here when I am paralised by the skill with which De Palma toys with the audience. His reputation as a Hitchcock acolyte makes part of the game about guessing where he will go with our knowledge of him as a director, so at times he leans fully into the Hitchcock trope, and at other times he pulls back, only to drive the knife in when it’s least expected. De Palma always uses the Hitchockian mode to creep further under the skin, by presenting us with lurid b-movie scenes but shooting them with the precision that makes us understand the psychology, of his characters and of himself. Femme Fatale is one of the most post-modern fims in the career of one of a strikingly self-reflexive director, and its delayed pleasures are all the stronger for it.