Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

Old Hollywood icon & sexual anarchist Marlene Dietrich first earned her legendary status through a run of collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, to the point where their names are near inseparable. The actor-director pair churned out seven feature films together in the 1930s — a catalog of sexually daring pictures set in exotic locales, each featuring Dietrich as a classic femme fatale. The Devil is a Woman is far from the most prestigious or technically accomplished of those collaborations. It doesn’t approach the controversial seduction & glamor of better-respected pictures like The Blue Angel, Morocco, or Shanghai Express. Despite the severe, sensational misogyny of its title, it’s a surprisingly goofy film, one that cannot be taken nearly as seriously as the more sublime achievements of the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon. It’s also one that distinguishes itself through the jubilant novelty of its setting: turn-of-the-century Spanish Carnival.

Marlene Dietrich stars as a Marlene Dietrich type: a seductive woman who bleeds men dry for her own amusement while modeling outrageous outfits and enjoying the lawless free-for-all of Spanish Carnival. An older, disgraced military officer warns his young friend about the dangerous seductive powers of all women, then of Dietrich’s soul-draining (and money-draining) villainy in particular. It’s a cinematic trope that dates at least as far back as Theda Bara’s iconic role as The Vamp in 1915’s A Fool There Was, equally as misogynistic as it is aspirationally cool-as-fuck. Dietrich oddly doesn’t approach the role with any of her usual laid-back cool, however. She’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but plays it more like a proto-Lucille Ball sitcom scamp. She empties men’s pockets and manipulates them to fight for her affections (and amusement), sure, but she does so with a dialed-to-11 temper tantrum humor that I’m not used to seeing from her. Her casting as a Spanish seductress is pretty absurd on its face, but I also grew up in a time when Schwarzenegger routinely played an American everyman, so whatever. The real absurdity is in her broadly comedic interpretation of the role.

Of course, the “exotic” (to Hollywood) Spanish setting is mostly interesting for the visual feast of its Carnival celebrations, and the movie starts with a doozy — drunken revelers storming the studio set with giant paper-mâché heads and multi-colored streamers. The masquerade provides an excuse for costumed lushes & outright criminals to run wild circles around the sordid “love” triangle at the film’s center, and that revelry never loses its novelty. It’s also an excuse for Dietrich to model over-the-top Spanish gowns, starting with a show-stopper piece made of cascading black pompoms. It’s a beaut. I would more readily recommend the film for the novelty of that setting than I would for its significance in the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon, but that’s not to say it’s entirely frivolous. If anything, there’s something oddly subversive about how playful & lighthearted Dietrich plays the supposed femme fatale, a point that’s driven home when she admonishes one of her frustrated beaus, “You mistake your vanity for love.” It’s not her fault that men keep throwing all of their money & attentions at her feet, so why shouldn’t she get to enjoy the rewards during the year’s biggest party? Someone’s gotta pay for those gowns.

-Brandon Ledet