Bad girl, worse movie. Brian De Palma has always had style to burn, but only occasionally (“Carrie,” “Blow Out,” “The Untouchables,” “Casualties of War”) has it been applied to material which added heart to the glossily bewitching surface. More often (“Sisters,” “Obsession,” “The Fury,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Mission Impossible”) it’s been put to the service of screenplays that are essentially empty pulp made pleasurable by the verve and imagination of the presentation. And in a few really dismal cases, it’s been wasted on simply awful scripts–often thrillers penned by the director himself.
Sadly, “Femme Fatale” falls into the third category; shot in France, it comes across as a piece of dumb, garish Eurotrash, along the lines of Stephan Elliot’s equally silly and impenetrable “Eye of the Beholder” (1999). It’s ostensibly the tale of Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a female master thief who double-crosses her cohorts after a big score at the Cannes Film Festival, switches identities, goes off to America, returns to France as the wife of the US ambassador to France, and then falls in with Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), a paparazzo whom she manipulates in an effort to extricate herself from the threats arising from her past. The operative word here, however, is “ostensibly,” since part of the cinematic puzzle turns out to be (in a twist that most viewers will consider a gross cheat) that some of what we see is “real” and some not. The fundamental difficulty with this contrivance isn’t merely that the pileup of coincidences and logical lapses grows crushing by the time the surprise denouement rolls around (the script could charitably be described as implausibility squared), but that since the entire film is shot in a thoroughly dreamlike and hallucinatory style, it’s impossible to distinguish between what we’re intended to take as actual occurrence and what’s just imaginary. Flips in chronology and visual perspective, along with the director’s patented split screens and deliberately weird camera moves, make things even less comprehensible. From the standpoint of narrative coherence, another problem is that if we take the action literally, a good deal of the story must be set in 2008, although it never ceases to look absolutely contemporary.
But trying to apply ordinary standards of intelligibility to “Femme Fatale” is a hopeless task. In plot terms, one can observe that ultimately the picture makes sense in terms of ultimately linking things together, but that as a whole it makes no sense at all. The idiotically intricate construction is merely an excuse for De Palma not only to indulge in all his customary flourishes, but to raise all of them to a level that’s almost preternaturally extravagant. The picture is largely composed of laborious allusions to the work of his idols–Hitchcock, mostly (there’s a gob of “Vertigo” here, a dash of “Psycho” there, accompanied by a score from Ryuichi Sakamoto that’s mostly composed of Herrmannesque drones in the lower strings), but also the Billy Wilder of “Double Indemnity” (from which we see a French-subtitled scene at the very start)–but even more of homages to his own past work (it gets to be a bit like bird-watching: there’s “Dressed To Kill,” there’s “Blow Out,” there’s the aquarium from “Mission Impossible”); by the end it’s come to seem an exercise in self-parody. The effect is accentuated by the film’s structure: it’s basically a string of elaborate set-pieces of the sort that have worked brilliantly when used sparingly in previous De Palma efforts but, when arbitrarily thrown together en masse as here, come across like the tired tricks of a magician who doesn’t recognize that the audience can see every sleight of his hand. The opening jewelry-theft sequence, a flamboyant fifteen-minute sequence accompanied by a faux-Ravel bolero, encapsulates what’s wrong. Though meticulously staged and shot, it seems a pale reflection of what De Palma’s done far better before, and to make matters worse, it’s entirely pointless. There’s no reason why the whole scheme has been arranged in so absurdly complicated a fashion, or what point there is to the steamy sensuality that’s inserted into the action–except, of course, as a source of empty titillation.
Under these circumstances the actors flounder. The casting of Romijn-Stamos might be taken as another nod to Hitchcock: she proves as beautiful but vacuous as Kim Novak was in “Vertigo,” but De Palma doesn’t have the skill to mold her performance the way Hitch did Novak’s. As a result she has the singular distinction of being an actress who plays two roles in a single film, and manages to be terrible in both. (In fairness, though, she looks great on the numerous occasions when she strips down to her lingerie.) Banderas seems totally flat and lost, except in one truly embarrassing scene in which he has to adopt a prissy persona when Nicolas invades Laure’s hotel room. Peter Coyote appears briefly as the ambassador who weds Laure, and Gregg Henry even more so as a singularly inept security officer. (For some reason the latter is also glimpsed early on in an elevator scene–whether as a meaningless joke or a clumsy red herring is hard to say). Eriq Ebouaney, who was so impressive in “Lumumba,” proves that he can sneer with the best (or worst) of them as one of Laure’s nasty cohorts.
Technically “Femme Fatale” is gaudily eye-catching, but ultimately all the flash and pizzazz of Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography is wearying rather than exhilarating. And even were the surface more entrancing, it wouldn’t make up for the gross miscalculations in writing and casting. In the De Palma oeuvre, the picture ranks toward the very bottom, somewhere between “Body Double” and “Raising Cain” and the one hand and “Mission to Mars” on the other.