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The French Disconnection
(Femme F
atale, Dir: Brian De Palma/ 2002)
starring: Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute,
Rie Rasmussen
"the camera lies 24 times per second".

Sometime 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 Hitchcock’s 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 didn’t get mixed with such a serious and well–reputed 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 Palma’s career over the 90’s 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 Palma’s 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 Hollywood’s realism. It is also a remarkable essay about the filmwatching experience in general and De Palma’s previous films in particular. It is as well as if De Palma challenges the filmmakers that subscribe to Goddard’s 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 doesn’t lie. He rather cheats on the viewer; deceive us, leading us into paying attention on whatever he want us to see. This manipulation was Hitchcock’s 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 Preminger’s classic), and at the same time reflects in Barbara Stanwyck’s image on a TV set. We’ll 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 Palma’s film seems to be an answer to Lynch’s. And if one gets disappointed with Lynch’s 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. "You’ve look at it all, but you didn’t see it all" he says mischievously.

As in every De Palma’s 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 Sakamoto’s score, a variation of Ravel’s 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 Palma’s 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 church’s view from Bardo’s 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 Palma’s films are essentially about, from Jack Terry’s reconstruction of a truth with the aid of montage in "Blow Out", to Rick Santoro’s 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 doesn’t 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 Palma’s obsessions makes its entry. In a wonderful orchestration, we see Laura’s 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 Laura’s dream: the maid, the business man, his secretary. All the clues are put in front of our eyes. We see them but we don’t.

When Laura’s awakes as Lily we’ll 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 Laura’s adventure. From there on, logic will be put aside as De Palma’s 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 it’s 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 Palma’s films. She’s Kim Novak in "Vertigo" and also Melanie Griffith’s 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 Laura’s film-dream) completes in our mind.

A philosophical film made of residues, in De Palma’s crafted juxtaposition sex, violence and kitsch are elevated to a noble form. In all its complexity, bathed by the director’s 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 filmwatchers.

© Mirko Stopar September 2003
Now available on DVD
See also
State & Main
Mirko Stopar
Mirko Stopar

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