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Femme Fatale And The Joy of Castration
Brian De Palma's Glorious Ode to Sex and Nonsense
Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002) is a kind of inverse body double of his earlier film Body Double (1984). Both movies are obsessed with undermining, or castrating, the male gaze. Where Body Double frames the male viewer as impotent and frozen outside the narrative, though, Femme Fatale instead constructs a female viewer whose usurpation of the male position causes the film narrative to fragment into an eroticized stasis of fantasy and dream.
The movie is ostensibly a noir in the tradition of Double Indemnity, which our seductress Laure (Rebecca Romijn) is watching (nude, her image superimposed on the screen within a screen) in the first scene. Laure is point person for a heist in which she is supposed to steal diamonds worn (or mostly not worn) by model Veronica (Rie Rasmussen) at a Cannes premiere. However, Laure double crosses her partners. Then things get odd.
Femme fatales in Hollywood cinema traditionally challenge the male dominance of look and plot. In her classic essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that Hollywood films link male viewer and male protagonist as masterful gazers, whose look drives and orders the story arc. Women, in contrast, connote "to-be-looked-at-ness" they are "displayed as sexual object" and "erotic spectacle." The gaze possesses woman, which allows the (male) gazer in the theater the illusion of mastery. At the same time, though the spectacle of woman tends "to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation." Woman is thus the prize of narrative mastery and a sensuous ice pick (or prick) in the eye of that same mastery. She is the prize that empowers narrative thrust and the twinkling treasure that leads the gaze (and other bits) off course.
Classic Hollywood films like Double Indemnity use the femme fatale to take advantage of this doubled gaze to heighten both impotence and empowerment. The erotic spectacle of Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) hijacks the male gaze and the male driven plot so that good guy Walter (Fred MacMurray) is diverted from the straight and narrow. Instead of his gaze driving the plot, her gazed-at-ness takes the wheel, steering him towards perversion, iniquity, and ultimately death. The film becomes a battle between the erotic distraction of the femme fatale and the righteous vision of the male. When Walter shakes off the glamour and does the right thing (by killing Phyllis) he reasserts his potency—though at the cost of his own life. That's the price of getting bogged down in the venus of spectacle.
Femme Fatale sort of reiterates this narrative tension, sort of parodies it, and sort of blows it up. Laure is an erotic spectacle which seizes control of the plot in numerous ways—first of all by literally seducing Veronica and ravishing her in the bathroom, pulling off her diamonds so her accomplice can slip substitutes under the stall. It's a flamboyantly queer literalization of the way that the femme fatale queers cinematic narratives.
The plot in this case is advanced by a frozen erotic fugue, which disassembles the erotic object of desire in a demonstration of mastery which has the only male on screen kneeling awkwardly and unerotically before a highly stylized erotic spectacle, with the camera floating overhead as if lifted by sheer libidiness force from its regular circuit. (All this while the heist perpetrators actually cut power to the film showing within the film, which Vernoica was supposed to be watching before she was pulled into that bathroom by Laure and lust. (Oh, and did I mention that Laure attended the premiere as a photographer?))
Someone Else's Gaze
As the parentheticals indicate, the whole first (almost wordless) sequence is a nesting doll of winking erotic distraction and virtuoso meta-narrative gaze (including a scene in which one guard has his eye shot out) . But DePalma is just getting started.
After Laure double-crosses her co-conspirators, she almost immediately stumbles upon an exact double of herself—a woman named Lily, who is grieving the death of her husband and child. Lily kills herself as Laure ( rapt, much like the audience) watches the sudden eruption of woman-coded genre melodrama. Then Laure, like the film picks up Lily's life.
Laure/Lily goes to the US, meets a wealthy ambassador (Peter Coyote) and marries him. At which point the movie jumps 7 years into the future, when the couple is stationed to Paris. A paparazzi, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) takes Lily's picture, which means the men she betrayed know she's alive. So she seduces Nicolas and embroils him in a false kidnapping plot so she can get millions from her husband and disappear.
The plot gets more tangled and less sensical as it goes along, which is no doubt the point. Character also is unstable, as Laure shifts from sympathetic and somewhat ethical to a hypersexual ball breaker at the whims of what isn't even really a narrative. There's a wonderful, over-the-top scene in which she does a striptease for a French bar tough while she knows Bardo is watching; he knows she's manipulating him, but can't help himself as he attacks the poor sap in order to "rescue" Laure and take her for himself.
The fight between (photographer master of the gaze) Bardo and the schnook is completely offscreen though; we see it only in silhouette on the wall behind Laure, who watches the whole thing, her face radiant with delight. Via erotic spectacle, she's not just created that quintessential male narrative device, the fistfight, but she's also taken the gaze; she is both looking and frustrating the look, since you (as male, or for that matter, female viewer) can't help but strain your neck to look around (stunning, semi-nude) Laure, who has interposed herself between you and the fight choreography.
The film ends with a Double Indemnity type restoration of order; Laure almost pulls off her fake kidnapping heist, killing both her husband and Bardo. But at the last minute the guys she betrays show up and throw her in the river, as Nicolas gets the last look and a lingering smile, secure at least in the knowledge that male action has triumphed, even if it's not his male action—just as the male cinema viewer is always triumphing by gazing at some other male hero on screen.
Choose the Erotic Path of Not Choosing
Did I say that's how the film ends? Yeah, I lied.
Instead, we follow Laure as she drowns in the river...and then she surfaces back in Lily's bathtub, just before her other self is about to kill herself. Armed with a dream vision of the future, Laure is able to save Lily, and then we race back through the narrative—pausing to reveal that Veronica was Laure's accomplice the whole time, and she just walked out with the real jewels, which Laure trickily didn’t exchange.
The movie actually ends with a truck driving into the guys Laure double-crossed because the truck driver is distracted by a piece of jewelry that Laure (or maybe Lily?) gave him in this new timeline. The very last image is a still of Laure standing near the moving truck, light reflecting off her suitcase into the windshield to be reflected by the jewelry, like she is herself a hypnotic bauble, steering men and narrative this way and then that through sheer beauty.
When the movie first came out, many critics were put off by the combination of gratuitous eroticism and deliberate narrative incoherence. The truck goes off its path just like the movie keeps going off of its trajectory—the protagonist switches lives, jumps into the future seven years, goes back in time, conflates dream and reality.
But the sex and the silly serendipity are inextricable. De Palma turns visual pleasure—the luxurious vision of water pouring out of the bathtub; split screen shots showing the same scene from multiple angles so it becomes a cubist abstraction; the camera swooping up to look down into an interrogation room; the extreme close up of Laure’s eyes; multiple explicit sex scenes—into isolated fragments of anti-plot, which direct your gaze to a here that goes both everywhere and nowhere. Instead of trying to master visual pleasure with narrative, Femme Fatale revels in the way the femme fatale releases the film from sequence, logic, and ultimately even from misogyny. De Palma, that most faithful of Hitchcock disciples, tosses away narrative mastery, and with it the master's paranoia. What he's left with is a pleasure that, despite all the sex, feels so innocent you almost have to call it joy.
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