Dir: Brian De Palma/ 2002)
starring: Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Peter Coyote,
Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute,
camera lies 24 times per second".
ago Brian De Palma had the film world at his feet. He was the author
of a number of key films ("Carrie", "Dressed to kill",
"Scarface", "The Untouchables", to mention a
few) and was the subject of both audience and critical acclaim.
Even if the aesthetical depth of his work was not discussed in favour
of his technical style and the entertaining value of his filmmaking
as "a continuator of Hitchcocks themes", he more
or less managed to carry on exploring subjects of his personal interest
while delivering mainstream Hollywood pictures.
But since he decided to adapt a prestigious literary american icon as
Tom Wolfe ("The bonfire of the vanities"), the situation changed.
The film caused a commotion. Everybody could be happy as far as "a
minor entertainer" like De Palma didnt get mixed with such
a serious and wellreputed material. Was it misunderstood or was
De Palma too bold in his vision attacking one by one the constituent
elements of american society? Be that as it may, the consequences would
affect his work from there on, and De Palmas career over the 90s
was a continuous struggle full of box-office failures, artistic concessions
and critical ignorance.
The last of his Hollywood pictures was his underrated "Mission
to Mars", an experiment in which De Palma dealt with a completely
new approach towards his usual obsessions, most notably portraying a
world freed of evil, and still a very personal work. That was the last
straw. The only thing he had left then was the fidelity of his film
followers and his artistic reputation intact in France. Eventually he
left Hollywood and moved to France to work in an environment free of
interference in a strictly personal and independent project. So came
"Femme Fatale", maybe the most radically didactical of the
films of his fascinating body of work.
Femme Fatale is like a fortress with a hundred doors. Each door allows
a line of analysis. It is De Palmas return to classicism (the
first image of the film is from a Billy Wilder film) but at the same
time a declaration of war towards Hollywoods realism. It is also
a remarkable essay about the filmwatching experience in general and
De Palmas previous films in particular. It is as well as if De
Palma challenges the filmmakers that subscribe to Goddards maxim
"The camera is truth at 24 frames per second", changing it
into "the camera lies 24 times per second".
With his exploitation of the potential of his camera, De Palma doesnt
lie. He rather cheats on the viewer; deceive us, leading us into paying
attention on whatever he want us to see. This manipulation was Hitchcocks
best trick and a one that Brian developed into perfection. He displays
a complex system of information that is only apparent, because it fatally
will turn to be fake, a thread made of reflections, a succession of
false clues, dead ends, missing pieces of a puzzle which eventually
the viewer will need to complete, as that collage that Nicholas Bardo
(Antonio Banderas) has in his room made of fragments of photographs.
De Palma uses fragmentation in a variety of forms, from his trademarked
multiple split-screen, to images provided by photo and video cameras
or simply through enclosing characters behind window frames.
The hero here is Laura Ash. She is 'noir' right from the name (remember
Otto Premingers classic), and at the same time reflects in Barbara
Stanwycks image on a TV set. Well be in noir territory.
But can noir be today as pristine as it was in the forties? Surely not.
Therefore it must be integrated in a dream sequence. The devices are
all there, the femme fatale rotten to the heart, the man that falls
for her and gets dragged to a tragic end, the seduction schemes, the
inevitability, and the past that emerges to collect the bill. These
are the same issues worked by David Lynch in "Mullholand Drive",
a film acclaimed at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, which is where the
heist of Laura and her con team takes place. De Palmas film seems
to be an answer to Lynchs. And if one gets disappointed with Lynchs
methods of deception, that resort to psychological interpretation, De
Palma, on the other hand, puts all the elements of the puzzle right
in front of our eyes and at the end of the game we cannot but grin and
accept the cleverness of his staging. "Youve look at it all,
but you didnt see it all" he says mischievously.
As in every De Palmas picture, the whole film is compressed in
a spectacular opening scene. It is the heist itself, too good to be
true, and its fatal consequences. The Ryuchi Sakamotos score,
a variation of Ravels Bolero, makes it memorable. Everything is
there, pure cinematically: the voyeurism and its object, the representation
inside the representation, the original and its fake copy, the episode
built from multiple points of views. It is one of the most perfect First
Acts in film history, executed with acute mannerism. As De Palmas
camera misleads our eyes, giving the hidden predominance over the shown,
then we are forced to separate in our minds the real from its representation
(the churchs view from Bardos apartment vs. the photo collage),
and to connect the different pieces into a sense. This comprises the
film watching experience. And this is what De Palmas films are
essentially about, from Jack Terrys reconstruction of a truth
with the aid of montage in "Blow Out", to Rick Santoros
investigations of a crime from partial testimonies of witnesses in the
box arena in "Snake Eyes".
After everything goes wrong Laura is on the run. De Palma doesnt
waste time establishing things or introducing characters types.
His economy is admirable. Laura talks on a phone booth and says "I
need a passport yesterday" and that suffices to set her situation
of desperate need. Immediately afterwards, chance makes a providential
appearance at the outside of a church when two strangers mistake her
for another person. The element of the double, another of De Palmas
obsessions makes its entry. In a wonderful orchestration, we see Lauras
fragile situation both through the lens of the paparazzi and her former
partner in crime. A chase follows, in which Laura escapes to a hotel
by the airport, and all the way through we catch a glimpse of a number
of bystanders that would eventually reappear playing a role in Lauras
dream: the maid, the business man, his secretary. All the clues are
put in front of our eyes. We see them but we dont.
When Lauras awakes as Lily well soon enter the dream sequence.
Is this brought out of the blue? Certainly not. De Palma sets the dream
sequence very carefully: the storm, the clock, the water running, her
sinking. Signs that would eventually emerge all the way through, emphasizing
the surreal atmosphere of Lauras adventure. From there on, logic
will be put aside as De Palmas mise- en- scene develop into pure
form. Everything is disconnected (as in noir films, where the apparent
"real" situation was opposed to an artificial photography),
dialogue makes no sense (at some points its dubbed without even
following the actors lips), time jumps back and forth. During
the dream, Laura will embody different women archetypes, all traceable
in film history and particularly in De Palmas films. Shes
Kim Novak in "Vertigo" and also Melanie Griffiths prostitute
of "Body Double". These are the vague associations of a sleeping
mind, an exploration of surfaces, a fragmentary nightmare that will
provide Laura the possibility of changing her fatal destiny with redemption.
And so she does, and as all the pieces reconnect in the climax that
lead to the cynical happy ending, the film itself (the film De Palma
wanted us to see, not Lauras film-dream) completes in our mind.
A philosophical film made of residues, in De Palmas crafted juxtaposition
sex, violence and kitsch are elevated to a noble form. In all its complexity,
bathed by the directors freedom, artistic depth coexists with
pure entertainment. One can acknowledge De Palma for his virtues and
coherence, but most of all, for open our eyes and letting us be better
© Mirko Stopar September 2003
Now available on DVD
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