Brian De Palma's new film, Femme Fatale, begins in darkness, with the muffled but gradually recognizable voices of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck speaking on the sound track. As light filters by degrees into the frame, the audience sees a television screen showing the climactic scene between the two lovers in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. The camera backs slowly away from the TV set, revealing French subtitles on the screen, along with the reflection of a mostly naked woman, lying on a bed, watching MacMurray and Stanwyck in their final confrontation. De Palma's movie soon supplants the one on television, as an angry, brutal man in evening clothes bursts into the room; harshly catechizes the woman in a series of terse, cryptic questions and commands; then suddenly and gratuitously slaps her to punctuate his message, explosively launching the picture into its puzzling, circuitous, convoluted plot.
The typically complex and provocative scene creates the kind of flashy and indelible signature the writer-director often inscribes on his work. It combines inexplicable violence with a sinister eroticism, while acknowledging the influence of some classic from the past. De Palma cleverly employs the movie on television to establish not only the meaning and tone of Femme Fatale, but also its location in France. Unfortunately, the subtlety and complexity of that moment dwindle into merely repetitive complication, the mystery and suspense into transparent manipulation, and the eroticism into a kind of specious and mechanical teasing, like the motions of an attractive stripper with no sense of rhythm.
As that scene from Double Indemnity and the location in France indicate, this time around, the director is attempting something in a new direction: that currently fashionable and retrogressive genre, film noir, a logical choice for a terrifically skilled and inventive filmmaker who also understands and respects the great masters of cinema history. In addition to some brilliant variations on Hitchcock subjects, methods, and themes --- Sisters, Obsession, Body Double --- De Palma has directed a remarkable variety of action films, including horror, gangster, mystery, and science fiction flicks. He has also made comedies, war movies, and even the Tom Cruise blockbuster Mission: Impossible. His best work usually combines several of those genres, as in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, mixing shock and suspense with some smart and logical puzzles. It also invariably displays innovative camera movement and a distinctive visual style. The director has commented that he's the only experimental filmmaker whose movies play in the mainstream commercial houses.
In Femme Fatale --- the title could describe the female lead of any film noir --- the plot hinges around a big caper that, in the traditional manner, goes badly awry. The caper takes place at the Cannes Film Festival, an appropriate backdrop for a director who enjoys updating some of the grand cinematic traditions of the past. The woman in the opening sequence, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), acts as the lure for the carefully planned theft of an elaborate golden snake encrusted with diamonds, worn by a beautiful movie actress (Rie Rasmussen). Laure makes love to the actress in a stall in the ladies' room, removing the snake while her boss replaces it with a duplicate.
After the theft, the thriller plot kicks in, and the puzzles begin a process of preposterous mystification. Laure double-crosses her confederates, whose associates pursue her to Paris, where, through some quite unconvincing and inexplicable coincidences, she finds herself mistaken for a woman named Lily. Assuming that identity (another tradition of the thriller), she flees to America. The picture, in effect, then opens all over again through the clumsy device of some prose on the screen telling us that it is now seven years later. Laure/Lily, now the wife of an American diplomat, resumes her devious ways, entangling a persistent photographer, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), in the mystery of her identity and the danger of her theft.
In the De Palma manner, the picture exhibits some exciting cinematography and visual legerdemain. Fond of using professions that border on his own --- e.g. photographer, film sound technician, computer whiz, movie actor, porn producer --- he employs Banderas as the central voyeur of the film, the stand-in for the audience, and the uncomprehending observer of the mysterious character and behavior of the femme fatale. The choice enables De Palma to exploit various points of view, display his usual dazzling camera work, toy with minimally varying shots of repeated events, split the screen into two separate-but-related sequences of action and camera setups, and generally try every trick in his capacious book.
All the camera angles and movements work wonderfully well, imparting considerable tension, suspense and, occasionally, some genuine exhilaration to the essentially ridiculous plot. However, uncharacteristically, the director appears to settle for some easy ways out of the labyrinth of style and action he constructs around the central character, and chooses some bland pieties to explain his themes. Further, the tiny Banderas, who possesses little in the way of presence or skill to begin with, looks quite ridiculous attempting to speak to, walk beside, and embrace the tall Romijn-Stamos. As usual, Peter Coyote (who plays Laure's husband) seems simply ridiculous whatever his height. Somehow, all of De Palma's considerable talent and skill cannot compensate for the silliness of Femme Fatale's characters, the inadequacy of its actors, and the essential wrongness of its conception.
Femme Fatale, starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute, Rie Rasmussen, Gregg Henry, Fiona Curzon, Daniel Milgram, Eva Darlan, Jean-Marie Frin, Stephane Petit, Olivier Follet, Jo Prestia, David Belle; written and directed by Brian De Palma. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.