Bait and Switch
Two years ago, Eriq Ebouaney starred in Raoul Peck’s stunning, under-seen Lumumba. This year, in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, he’s playing a thug referred to only as Black Tie. Chances are that more people will see him in this film, and that’s too bad.
Black Tie first appears—in the attire for which he is named—entering a swank Cannes hotel room occupied by Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). She’s lying on her bed, in her panties, with her back to the camera, watching Double Indemnity on tv. Just as Barbara Stanwyck confesses to Fred MacMurray that she’s “rotten to the heart,” Black Tie steps into the frame, chastising Laure: she’s not ready for her mission. Laure stands, her back still to the camera but facing Black Tie. When she speaks, he slaps her so hard that her face whips round toward the camera. She gathers herself and leaves the room, ready for her mission.
This moment is startling, even a little audacious. A black man hitting a beautiful, nearly naked white movie star, here making her first effort to carry a project other than MTV’s “Sexiest Videos Countdown”—you just don’t see that every day. And yet Femme Fatale uses this shook-up moment in the least interesting way possible, to establish sympathy for the girl.
Thus established, Laure appears next outside on a red carpet, where she’s fronting as a photographer for a film premiere at the Palais des Festivals, surrounded by famous film luminaries as themselves: Sandrine Bonnaire, Gilles Jacob, Dorothée Grosjean, the director Régis Wargnier. One of Laure’s photo subjects is a breathtaking starlet (Rie Rasmussen) wearing a bejeweled serpentine rig that barely covers her nipples. Within minutes, Laure and Starlet are making out inside a bathroom stall, while Black Tie crouches in the adjacent stall, slipping fake jewelry under the partition to replace the real jewelry Laure removes from Starlet, who sighs and moans with pleasure. As the women writhe and press against the semi-opaque stall wall, the camera passes over Black Tie’s face in sweaty close-up. And so, the audience and the “sides” become unclear: is Starlet in on the heist? Is she performing for Black Tie? Is Laure performing for Starlet? And does Black Tie even have a real name?
Arresting as they might seem—at first—these two scenes only comprise small bits of Femme Fatale‘s grandiose, 15-minute opening, which includes tension-making cuts between Laure and Black Tie’s fellow thieves, wielding standard caper-movie gadgetry, like video cameras, body-cables, laser cutters, and night vision goggles—all under a smartly souped up version of “Bolero,” by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Well choreographed and sinuous as it is, this lengthy opening business makes little narrative sense.
This illogic is exacerbated once the theft goes bad. Laure absconds with some $10 million in diamonds, bloodied bodies gasping behind her: perhaps she’s not so compliant or conventionally “sympathetic” as she first looked. In fact, she’s tough and oddly moralistic: “You said no guns!” she hisses at one betrayer who is, at that moment, leaking fluids all over the white marble floor. She makes her way out of the supposedly super-secure theater, eventually making her way to a meeting with her partner and fence, Starlet in a fashionable camouflage outfit: how appropriate.
Laure’s nerve and ingenuity are especially impressive in a Brian De Palma movie. She also lucks out, incredibly, when she’s mistaken for someone else (by that someone else’s parents, no less), and so is accidentally rescued from the vengeful Black Tie and his partner Racine (Edouard Montoute). Following a series of increasingly implausible coincidences, Laure (who is not French, but poses as French, and somehow convinces all her French acquaintances that her French and her accent are genuine) leaves the country, then returns, “seven years later.” Now she’s living in Paris with a new husband, Ambassador to France Bruce Hewitt Watts (De Palma regular Peter Coyote), as well as a security guard (another regular, Gregg Henry), wearing white designer coats, white scarves, and big, hyper-stylish sunglasses.
Mysterious women and mistaken identities, European intrigue and bloody violence, sunglasses and white scarves—it all sounds familiar. And so it appears that, after several recent diversions (among them, Mission: Impossible and Mission to Mars), De Palma has returned to his favorite endeavor: remaking Hitchcock movies.
This time, it’s mostly Vertigo, with Romijn-Stamos not quite evoking Kim Novak. She’s charismatic in a wifty, occasionally fascinating, way, and she’s obviously used to striking seductive poses. And she honestly has a tough job of it here, with dialogue that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: who, after all, could make sense of “You don’t have to lick my ass, just fuck me!” That is, no one is going to mistake Romijn-Stamos’ performance in Femme Fatale for a “breakthrough.” (De Palma has compared selecting her to selecting Kevin Costner for The Untouchables: I rest my case). While she’s apparently pushing her limits by playing two characters (which mostly entails wearing different wigs), Romijn-Stamos does look amazing in her skimpy costumes, and she humps a pool table like no one else.
Her central function, in other words, is looking great and so, confounding various men around her: Black Tie, the Ambassador, and, of course, the poor sap standing in for Jimmy Stewart/Fred MacMurray, inexorably sucked into her vortex. In this case, he is grizzle-faced, reluctant-but-very-good-at-it paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (exceedingly good sport Antonio Banderas). Desperate for money, he shoots some pictures of the Ambassador’s wife, which are in turn plastered all over Paris (because, inexplicably, the U.S. Ambassador’s wife is deemed worthy of tabloid coverage).
Laure (now passing as “Lily”) determines to seduce the photographer, who is, in turn, willing to believe she is in danger. Obviously, he’s never seen a De Palma film, or a Hitchcock film, for that matter. And so, he’s lured in, despite his better (or worse, who can tell?) judgment. When he drops her off at the Sheraton (where he has just prevented her from shooting herself with a gun he watched her buy at a “sex shop,” then spent the afternoon regaling her with tales of his wayward youth), Nicolas is stunned when Laure strips to her expensive underwear, long legs lithing all over the furniture. Jaw dropped, he asks, seemingly undone by his good fortune, “Are you flirting with me?” (Gee, you think?) Incredibly, she has an answer: “All your boyhood stories make you so damn lovable.” Clinch.
Because you’ve seen Laure in action previously, you have a good idea what she’s up to, and so the “flirting” doesn’t have quite the same effect on you as it seems to on hapless Nicolas. Defenseless as he is against Laure, you may be forgiven for hoping that Black Tie’s inevitable reappearance will lead to some emotional tangling, some expression of intelligence or desire that’s not a pose. But no. He emerges from prison, still in his tux, declaring that he’s spent all his seven years inside thinking about that darn femme.
In the end, Femme Fatale can’t get out of its own stylized way. For all De Palma’s famously extravagant and often exhilarating technique (deep focus, split screens, foreboding close-ups, crazy-sharp camerawork, here by Luc Besson’s usual DP Thierry Arbogast), the film remains spectacularly uninvolving.