Filmmakers I find worth talking about have the ability to apply auteurship to whatever they touch. When great filmmakers are hired to take on commercial projects, they will inject their vision into the material with great authority, and sometimes a director makes an uncompromisingly personal piece of art that is as controversial and misunderstood as it is fascinating.
When Brain De Palma made Femme Fatale in 2002, the film generated very divisive responses; it puzzled and angered many – and was called a masterpiece at the same time. Regardless of its perception, I have very little doubt that this film offers an unparalleled insight into De Palma’s mind and directorial vision.
He begins Femme Fatale by focusing on the concept of identity through the protagonist’s relationship with the image of the Self. Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) is a key figure in a complex heist taking place during the Cannes film festival – in an opening sequence that is as beautifully choreographed as we would expect from De Palma. Their target is an exorbitantly priced, attention seeking serpent jewel fitted with diamonds, and wrapped around the body of Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), a tall and slim supermodel, who’s taking much of the spotlight on the red carpet.
The heist is already in progress when we find Laure on the red carpet disguised as a press photographer with a fake ID badge around her neck, holding a camera. The fake ID with an ‘image of herself’ and the device that ‘captures images’ are both in direct contact with Laure’s body. Her role in this elaborate crime operation is to “charm the snake” by seducing Veronica, take her to the ladies room for a scene of passion that involves taking the expensive jewel off her body.
The reason Laure finds this task so easy will be revealed later, but her intent is nevertheless discovered by the guard assigned to protect the jewel, and all hell breaks loose. The man running the heist operation, “Black Tie” (Eriq Ebouaney) decides that under these circumstances Veronica has to be killed. This is the point when Laure makes the first decision to have a profound impact on her future. She saves Veronica’s life, and in the following chaos she walks out with the diamonds.
From this point onwards, Laure will fear her own image. The close and almost intimately visualised relationship between her, the image of herself and the camera on the red carpet prior to saving Veronica changes to its extreme opposite.
Laure finds herself in a desperate situation trying to evade the police as well as her ex-partners in crime. She is in need of a new identity in order to escape from the country, and her own image is precisely what she has to get for a fake passport. Her following encounter with a camera pointing at her proves to be a cathartic experience:
Having survived the fall Laure wakes up in a flat where she’d been taken by a French couple who recognize her as somebody else – Lily. After they leave, Laure finds out that Lily’s husband and child have just been killed, and while Laure is in the bath, Lily arrives home extremely distressed.
In the wake of Laure’s trauma of the fall, from what is now a deep seated fear of her own image, she allows the desperately grieving Lily – an identical image of herself in real life – to commit suicide. This solves all of Laure’s problems as she makes a second crucial decision. Unlike the selfless deed of saving Veronica before, this time, driven by fear, she uses somebody else’s misery for gain. She takes Lily’s identity and leaves France for the United States.
She finds a rich man (Peter Coyote) and has a loveless but financially secure life as Lily, and she stays safe by preventing her image from being taken. That is, until seven years later when Laure is forced to return to France when her husband becomes the US ambassador there.
This is where Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) makes his way into the narrative. Bardo is a struggling paparazzi who hates himself for what he’s doing. He is hired to take a picture of the US ambassador’s wife because no one has ever seen an image of her.
The circumstances of Laure being exposed once again carry deep symbolism between image and perception as pointed out by Eyal Peretz:
The recurring concept of blindness plays a role throughout Femme Fatale and will be crucial in the climax of the film. With her image taken against her will, Laure is exposed to the world and her ex-partners who are still looking for revenge.
In this future that Laure created by making two choices, there is another image entering the scene. A poster with the title “Déjà vu 2008” is put up all over Paris which also shows Laure, but this is not the image that exposed her to the world and her enemies. On the contrary, this is a picture that no one seems to notice.
The way she is looking peacefully dead on this poster is strikingly similar to Sir John Everett Millais’ painting depicting Ophelia in the moments before she drowned. This image, while evidently invisible to everyone, is a precognitive anomaly – signalling that things are wrong and out of place by showing a symbolic image of the eventual end of Laure.
Meanwhile, an extraordinary event takes place somewhere else. Laure’s former partner in crime, ‘Black Tie’ is released from prison and is filled with rage. He and another man from the heist track down Veronica, and as clouds move over the sun preventing light from hitting the scene, they kill Veronica by pushing her under a passing truck.
Immediately after Black Tie takes his first glance at the tabloid photo of the US ambassador’s wife captured by Nicolas Bardo, exposing Laure to people who want to harm her. This is a turning point in the film – a complex event that has the capacity to accommodate a miracle. The miracle doesn’t occur this time because certain things are not in place.
The character of the photographer Nicolas Bardo’s mirrors Laure in many ways, and is key to understanding the narrative and De Palma’s way with identity and the Self. Much like Laure, Bardo struggles with his own identity; he loathes himself for being a paparazzi, and as hinted in the film by now, he is working on a photographic piece that is very personal to him.
Despite his self-loathing, he accepts the assignment to take Laure’s picture. In this world that was created by Laure, Bardo also makes a choice that will bring about a horrific end for both of them.
In a very touching and unassuming scene, he tries to tell Laure about the image he’s working on, having seen something that changed his life. But in this out of place world, Laure is not interested. Their unfulfilled love story is the strongest indication that this world, in which they met, is not meant to be.
In Part 2, this world of wrongs will come to an end, and De Palma will move into uncharted territories with time travel and a miracle of divine proportions… Read the 2nd part »
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.