Sunday, April 7, 2024

Neo-Noir Watch: Femme Fatale (2002)

Watched:  04/07/2024
Format:  DVD
Viewing:  First
Director:  DePalma

A while back I was watching some DePalma movies, and enjoying them, and made a mental note to watch Femme Fatale (2002) sometime.  And, then, whilst watching Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which stars one Rebecca Romijn as Lt. Commander Una Chin-Riley, I was once again reminded to watch the film, and bought it on DVD via eBay for, like, $4.  

And then promptly forgot to watch it.  

Well, no more!  I have now finally seen Femme Fatale, and...  this is a tough one to discuss.  

DePalma is a curious film maker.  I genuinely like some of his work, and, at minimum, find stuff like Body Double at least worth a watch.  He's like a film studies book come to life, but he also isn't afraid of every day adult things like "people get naked" and "have sex" and gets those are pretty major motivations for people, and so can be for characters.* But he's also usually telling a thriller/ neo-noir crime story (see: Dressed to Kill or Blow Out) and so there's something to hang that on.  

Femme Fatale plays all of DePalma's greatest hits.  It has the most breathtakingly bizarre use of the concept of "doubles", it absolutely makes our kinda hero (Antonio Banderas) a voyeur, it goofs on identity, fate and concept of a femme fatale.  Heck, it opens on Romijn watching Double Indemnity.

Romijn was still a bit green when she took on the role, and I note that she was nominated for an off-brand Raspberry type award for this, but if the past few years have taught me anything, it's that those awards tend to age badly and generally show more about the awards' intolerance for anything not fitting into neat categories of that year or talent stretching beyond what the committee *thinks* they should be doing for a living (Romijn had been a model - which will shock no one watching this movie).  

I think Romijn is actually *pretty good* in this.  The character is a bit of a cypher, by necessity, and when the woman behind the face pokes her head out, it's interesting and buyable.  She's not as good as she's been on Star Trek, but - again - early days, and dealing with some material that works as an academic exercise as much or more than a coherent film.


The plot is that, basically, a (very sexy) heist goes bad, and Romijn is believed to have made off with the jewels by her partners.  She stumbles onto a couple who mistake her for a person named Lilly, and through a series of events, she winds up in a home not her own.  On the wall, she sees photos of a woman who looks just like her, but who has disappeared.  When the woman, who is distraught, returns to kill herself, our FF grabs her passport and a pre-bought plane ticket and gets on a plane where she meets Peter Coyote, a tech millionaire.  

Seven years later, she's married him (still faking a French accent) and he's become ambassador to France, so she must return.  Antonio Banderas gets involved, trying to help her.  But, she is a fataler femme than Jane Greer in Out of the Past, and things go sideways.  

There's a lot of twists to keep up with - maybe too many?  

Banderas plays a photographer who has been watching a certain spot and woman on the streets of Belleville, collecting photos for his art project, and gets a photo of Romijn as she returns to Paris as the wife of Coyote, now the American Ambassador to France.  The pic winds up in the papers, and Romijn believes herself now exposed to her former collaborators.  

All of this is a rich playground for DePalma's favorite Hitchcockian tropes, and they got to film in Paris, so whether the movie was well received or not (it was not well received) I am sure he had a grand time til the box office came back.  


What I think people will remember about the movie, if it's been a while, is (a) Romijn was pretty comfortable in front of a lens in her underwear, and she is in her underwear - or less - a lot, which was pretty unusual already by 2002.  And (b) the It's a Wonderful Life ending to the movie, where somehow Romijn's character gets a do-over at that crucial point when she watches her double kill herself for her own gain.  

Now, magical realism does occasionally creep into noir, and the first thing to pop into my head was Repeat Performance.  Which I am just now in 2024 figuring out I didn't write up after seeing at Noir City Austin several years ago.  

So we do have some ground to re-cover, and we get some redemption for Romijn's otherwise twisted, cruel and self-destructive lead.  

It's a bit jarring, like watching anything you believe is of one genre and then there's a shift.  If you suddenly had a fairy show up at the end of On the Waterfront and grant Marlon Brando a wish, you'd probably wonder wtf was going on and have to start rethinking the whole movie from minute one one the fly.  And, of course, there's a bit of "so we just watched an extended dream sequence?" that people have an aversion to as it can feel like the movie you watched doesn't "count".  And, in fact, I don't find it a mistake that It's a Wonderful Life backloads the Pottersville sequence after showing us everything that informs it and why it's bad, actually.  

But the movie is about illusions, and doubles and fake outs, and so, in a way, the twist to not just give us a second take, but one that doesn't deliver on the 1990's erotic thriller canned ending of everyone miserable as the credits role, and to make it so brazen is kind of thrilling in itself.  Film and stories never exist in a vacuum, and I don't know if DePalma is talking to himself (who arguably set up the erotic 90's, along with several other 1980's directors), or if he's talking to those mid-budget noir films to thumb his nose at expectations, or why he did what he did.  It's not clear.  But it is different.  And says something about our expectations.  

The movie probably would take a lot of dings as "unrealistic", and I can just imagine Cinema Sins losing their damn mind watching it.  It does ask that the audience accept massive coincidences, unlikely scenarios and the like.  If you're not onboard with that, this movie - which is almost a neo-noir fairy tale - isn't going to work.  To be honest, I had to settle in and agree with my brain to just deal with the wackiness of what DePalma was serving in order to proceed, and understand he'd flat out fetishized his favorite tropes and concepts to the point that the movie is more a series of ideas than a convincing narrative.

There is an absolutely crucial plotpoint in the film that I think doesn't work.  Banderas takes a photo of Romijn upon her arrival in Paris - and she is supposedly unphotographed til this point despite her husband's high profile (possible but unlikely in this era).  The photo is blown up and made a sort of pic of the day from the paparazzi press, which clues in her baddies that she's there.  

I do wonder in 2002, when Romijn was most famous for playing Mystique in X-Men under a bucket of make-up, if it wouldn't have worked better for a more recognizable actress to play the role,** or someone less symmetrical?  After the seven intervening years, and with a very different wardrobe, at night, under the wash of a flash, it's hard to say "oh, yes, that's clearly a very recognizable person with very specific features" about Romijn, as seen here.  Enough so that the crooks wouldn't need to do a *lot* of verifying before moving, that the plot point seemed...  poorly constructed.

I saw a single sentence out there saying the movie is getting some critical reconsideration these days in comparison to the reviews from 2002, which I'd charitably call "mixed".  And, yeah, if it's noir and neo-noir fans, I imagine folks who intentionally want to see this movie, they're going to find things in it that a reviewer who just finished writing up a Judd Apatow movie in 2002 is maybe less excited about.  Or even dealing with the cultural context of 2002 and how this movie would fit into the conversation versus the silo'd world of Filmsky and the like.

This won't ever be my favorite movie, but it's now a fun $4 curiosity to have on the DVD shelf.  And I do want to watch the extras to see what they say.

*I just finished watching a Dateline episode about a murder here in Austin that was based on sexual jealousy, and it has all the makings of a Coen Bros.-type crime film.  
**I am not saying Romijn is bland!  But she's symmetrical enough that I think "she could be confused for someone else taking a particularly flattering picture".  I will also argue the two decades since have given her a bit more distinctive character (also, probably with less glam make-up) and that she remains smashing

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