Femme Fatale (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

It seemed that at the end of every 30's horror movie someone would comment on the genius of evil Dr. So-and-so, and someone else would say, "if only he had used his genius for good instead of evil!"

Please apply the above statement to Brian de Palma. This guy really is a genius at storyboarding and camera movement. This is one of the most meticulously storyboarded films I've ever seen, and the photography is lustrous. If only he had something else worth photographing besides naked chicks.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

COMPLETE SPOILERS COMING. READ NO FURTHER IF YOU WANT TO SEE IT. It is a "surprise twist" film, and I'm going to tell you how friggin' dumb the surprise was.

OK, have all the kids left the room so the grown-ups can talk?

Michael O'Donoghue, the notorious Mr Mike from Saturday Night Live, once wrote an ironic piece for National Lampoon called "How to Write Good". The supreme irony was, of course, that everything in the article from the title onward was a lesson in writing poorly. One of the most important tips was that a writer need never feel painted into a corner by previous plot development that is difficult to resolve or explain. There is always a simple solution. Have the main character wake up and discover it was all a dream.

Brian de Palma read that article, except that he didn't realize the author was kidding.

Actually, I'm being unfair. Brian knew the article was kidding. It would be more accurate to say that he decided to make the article into a movie. Femme Fatale is an intellectual exercise in taking all the most contrived elements from thrillers throughout cinema history and putting them together in one movie, just for fun. The ridiculously intricate caper with multiple double crosses, the impossible coincidences, the intercession of fate, the fact that it was "all a dream".

You know that he's just kidding, although many reviewers took the film seriously. The clues are apparent:

1) After double-crossing her partners, Rebecca Romijn is in trouble in France. She has no ID and no plane ticket to leave the country. So how does this get resolved? She is in disguise when she is mistaken for another woman. She plays along, and when let into the woman's apartment, finds a passport with a photo that looks exactly like herself, and (conveniently enough) a plane ticket to America. It's better than that. She also finds that the woman who owns the passport and the ticket is going to commit suicide, thus vacating her identity long enough for Romijn to use the passport and ticket. Sure, that's believable. Remember all this took place BEFORE the dream began.

2) There were plenty of hints during the dream sequence that it took place within a dream. In fact, the hints were very obvious. People don't age or change their shirt in seven years. People don't even notice when an aquarium overflows, etc.

3) When Romijn realizes that she has just been dreaming, she assumes that everything in her dream will actually come true, and acts accordingly. Sure, that makes a lot of sense. I always assume my dreams will come true, don't you? Of course, dreams are capable of incorporating elements of the known into imaginative constructs, but their predictions for the future don't come true, except in the most general of ways. Certainly not in specific details like the name of the man who will be sitting next to you on a plane, given that you have never met him.

Oh, well, why go on? De Palma essentially made a two hour movie with little purpose than to make fun of thrillers, to take a bunch of digs at his own past films, and to satirize the movies of David Lynch, whose style and devices are frequently lampooned. It is a brilliant movie in many ways, but the whole concept is just so trivial that I found it tiresome. C'mon, Brian, you trying to be Captain Obvious? We know that thrillers are contrived and we know David Lynch has a screw loose, and we love them anyway. So?


Rebecca Romijn does an underwater nude scene, full frontal. her breasts are seen from the side/rear on two other occasions, and she does a strip tease in see-through panties.

Rie Rasmussen is seen topless in the opening heist sequence.

I guess you could consider it a good junk movie, ala Wild Things. It is filled with sexy music, naked models, and knowingly loopy plot twists. I liked Wild Things because it wore its sense of humor like a badge of honor. Femme Fatale is too cerebral, too obsessed with the intellectual exercise of trying to prove that one may create a great movie from bad script components, and just too darned humorless for something which is supposed to be fun. Roger Ebert was swept away by the razzle-dazzle of this film, and awarded it four stars. I agree that it is razzling, and dazzling, and sexy, but I believe that brevity is the soul of wit, and the joke here goes on too long to be witty.

Disregarding the debatable merits of the movie, we can agree that Rebecca is about as sexy in this film as any mainstream actress has ever been. The girl is beautiful, has a magnificent figure, shows it all, and knows what to do with it. She also does a surprisingly good acting job. I don't think Judi Dench needs to retire quite yet, but Becca did just fine as the designated evil woman required for a noir. If you watch the original evil woman - Barbara Stanwyck, who is shown in a brief old clip with Fred MacMurray which begins this movie - you'll see that she was no Dench herself, but she delivered what she needed to, and I'd say that Becca does as well. Plus, as De Niro's mob boss might say in "Analyze That, Too", I didn't see Stanwyck dancin' around in no see-through panties on the Big Fuckin' Valley.

DVD info from Amazon

  • From Dream to Reality - discussing the director and cinematographer's approach in creating the film's look

  • Dream Within a Dream - explores the filmmaker's process and his influence

  • Femme Fatale: Dressed to Kill montage

  • Femme Fatale: Behind the Scenes

  • Two theatrical trailers (French and North American)

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

Oh, I do need to point something out. Antonio Banderas set a personal record. At one time he was on screen for 22 seconds without touching his own hair, breaking his old record by about 19 seconds. I don't know how many times he actually touches his own hair in this film, but it's a lot. You'd need one of those Cornell supercomputers to calculate it exactly, but it is greater than the number of times Marlon Brando has spoken on screen while his hands are playing with something. (Love that Strasberg method!)

So yes, Brian De Palma is a genius. Let's hope that, unlike Dr Frankenstein, he will one day again use his genius for good instead of evil before the villagers burn down Castle De Palma.


Femme Fatale (2002) is a beautifully made film. Every camera frame is a masterpiece, the set design and location choices are wonderful, and the cast, which includes Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Rie Rasmussen, does an excellent job. The only problem is that it is a terrible story. We see a jewel robbery and a double cross, and are given enough information to guess the ending, then have about 95 minutes of plot development that doesn't match what we already know to be the ending. This is pretty disorienting, but then we find out we have just watched a 95 minute dream sequence. Then, we finally get the ending that was originally telegraphed in the first few minutes.

The DVD has several featurettes and a great transfer. The director, at the point that Romjin wakes up from the dream, said that this is where he would lose half the audience, with some saying, on no, don't tell me this was all a dream, and the others say, wow, this was a dream ... how interesting. Put me squarely in the first group. Some argue that this is a spoof an homage to noir suspense films. I can't support that decision, because two elements are absent, an evil dwarf, and any humor at all. Still, the film is technically superb, and the nudity is also very good, so the proper score is probably a C.


The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • Budget 35 million, gross 6 million. What else is there to say?
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C (both reviewers). This film is an absolute lesson in what to do with storyboarding and camera movement. But for a fun movie, it really isn't much fun. Nice nudity, though!

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