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Film of the Week: 'Femme Fatale'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Nov. 7, 2002 at 5:53 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- In "Femme Fatale," writer-director Brian De Palma ("Carrie" and "Dressed to Kill") tries to create a new kind of heroine combining the alluring but cruel bad girls of classic film noirs such as "Double Indemnity" and "The Maltese Falcon" with the victimized but butt-kicking heroines of recent years.

A 1940s femme fatale prided herself on personally never doing anything more strenuous than crossing her long, silken legs because that was all it took to incite some poor sap to commit felonies on her behalf in his hopeless quest to satisfy her.

The femme fatale has been in relative decline in the movies lately (although vamps like Susan Lucci remain a mainstay in soap operas, where fans love to cry out, "Why can't Dirk see through that conniving Erica?")

The very notion that any woman ever had any power over any man before the National Organization for Women rode to her rescue, or that she ever used that sexual power for malign ends, makes feminists sore. A strange alliance has thus emerged between feminists and the kind of guys who find violent women titillating. It dictates that the modern heroine should be a pure-hearted victim who then empowers herself to wreak physical vengeance on the man who done her wrong.

In last May's "Enough," Jennifer Lopez plays a young mother with an abusive husband. So, she methodically hones her body to ripped perfection, studies Israeli Army hand-to-hand combat techniques, and then thoroughly beats up her husband.

De Palma opens "Femme Fatale" with the tall, blonde Victoria's Secret model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos watching Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity." This comparison is as unfair to Romijn-Stamos (of "Rollerball" notoriety) as Jonathan Demme's casting poor Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton in the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn roles in last month's ill-fated "The Truth About Charlie."

Still, the cover girl acquits herself creditably enough. Playing a femme fatale apparently comes naturally to certain women. Look at how memorable Linda Fiorentino was in 1994's "The Last Seduction" and how forgettable she's been in everything else.

"Femme Fatale" also resembles "Charlie" in that it too offers a convoluted crime caper in which a gang tries to capture a beautiful woman in Paris who has the stolen money they want back.

Further, Demme made "Charlie" as a tribute to the French New Wave, while De Palma's film offers homage to De Palma films. The camera constantly swirls about in De Palma's trademark hey-look-at-me moves. For instance, almost 10 percent of the movie is shown in split-screen. It could be enjoyable to just sit back and watch De Palma show off, if he didn't pervade the whole movie with his usual grotesqueness.

Thematically, "Femme Fatale" recycles De Palma's idée fixes like characters who just happen to run into their identical doubles, mirrors, voyeurism, and water imagery -- you know, all the Higher Horsefeathers that film critics love and movie reviewers hate.

Most of all, though, the 62-year-old De Palma hauls out for the 20th or so time his sophomoric obsessions with sex and violence.

The bravura opening sequence is a precisely calculated "Ocean's Eleven"-style heist. Yet, the gang's entire operation depends solely on Romijn-Stamos being able to instantly persuade a supermodel wearing a $10 million diamond-encrusted brassiere away from making a grand entrance into the main theatre of the Cannes Film Festival on the arm of the star director and instead accompany her into a toilet stall for some stand-up lesbian sex.

This is like watching a tremendously gifted director film some fantasy he mailed into the "Letters to Penthouse" column in 1973. Indeed, De Palma seems stuck in the 1970s. He doesn't seem to realize that with the Internet everywhere, nobody needs to go to the movies anymore to look at naked ladies. (That's why American movies have been getting a little cleaner over the last few years, as the decline in R-rated films shows.)

Then, our heroine double-crosses her cohorts, pistol-whips their foreboding leader, and disappears with the diamonds. After that, more unfathomable plot twists lead to her marrying the richest man in the world. And that's just the beginning.

With the possible exception of Paul Verhoeven and Joe Esterhaz of "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls" notoriety, no auteur would benefit more from the re-imposition of the old Hays Code censorship regime than De Palma.

His basic artistic goal has always been to take all those decadent kinks of the psyche that Alfred Hitchcock was only allowed to hint at in his crypto-voyeuristic allegories such as "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" and instead plaster them across the screen fifty feet wide.

Well, Hitchcock never did anything worthwhile after censorship broke down in the late 1960s. De Palma's tragedy has been that he was born too late to have to use subtlety and artistry to communicate.

Rated R for all sorts of nudity, sex scenes, and impalements.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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