09 November 2002

"if you could see the future...would you change it?" this question, posed by a french psychic, emanates from an unwatched television; it also weaves its way through brian de palma's femme fatale. laure ashe (rebecca romijn-stamos) is a thief who double-crossed her partners and was left for dead by one of them: it doesn't take a mystic to see that if she doesn't change, her future outlook is not so good. the deus ex machina presents itself through a case of mistaken identity. without a second thought she leaps at this second chance, knowing that she'll die without it, and hoping that she doesn't live to regret it.

it probably wouldn't surprise you to read that a de palma film is all about image, image, image. the double-cross takes place at the world's largest flesh festival, cannes; flashbulbs illuminate the red carpet as stars from around the world parade down the red carpet; there is a rather steamy sex scene that takes place in the auditorium's ladies' room. but in femme fatale, the concern is with images -- a developed photo is of greater interest than its flesh & blood subject. television screens, passport photos, films, posters, computer monitors: despite being placed in the background, this is where femme fetale's story is told. tellingly, the film opens with a scene from double indemnity; in an act of foreshadowing, ashe's image reflects on the television screen, becoming one with barbara stanwyck. (of note: double indemnity, an english-language film, is broadcast with french subtitles; much of femme fatale is the exact opposite. it represents one of the most extensive uses of subtitles in a studio film that i've seen in quite some time.)

de palma seems to be saying that, in today's society, with our power books and digital cameras, everybody is watching everybody else. at one point, at cannes, the cameras turn around and give the impression that the audience itself is being watched. the audience, for its part, rarely gets the chance to watch the film through its own perspective: de palma not only fetishizes technology -- phallic stun-guns, slithering spy cameras, weaponry caressed like body parts -- but he also employs it handily. the film is seen through binoculars, high-tech spy gear, and night-vision goggles; point-of-view is frequently altered, placing the moviegoer into the scene; angles, especially those of the slowly descending sort, are varied throughout. the ultimate effect: you're watching someone else watch the film.

so the virtuoso filmmaking offers its own thrills, but wouldn't be worth much of a damn without a story (remember timecode?) and the script, written by de palma, is frequently compelling. comparisons have been made with mulholland drive, and they're not unsubstantiated. there's hott lesbian action, yeah, but there's also a question of identity and doppelgangers and the mutability of the future. lynch's interest, however, is in metaphysics; de palma's with the purely physical. so femme fatale doesn't resolve itself with a little blue box, but the plot device is so pat that you'll wish it did.

which is to say that the film is not flawless: aside from the resolution and some other plot points that i really can't go into, romijn-stamos isn't naomi watts and she probably should've watched double indemnity more carefully. but what she does have over barbara stanwyck is a supermodel bod and a director not shy about employing it. those looking for deep meaning are hereby directed to the arthouses: drunk on voyeurism, femme fatale is all about surfaces. and gloriously so.

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