The Director’s Chair: Brian De Palma & Femme Fatale

The Director’s Chair: Brian De Palma & Femme Fatale

Part 2 of 2

For the first part of this feature focusing on De Palma’s
work with identity and the image of the Self click here.

The world where nothing seems right, and Laure has to fear her own image, is approaching its end. She is increasingly unrecognisable as herself, setting Nicolas Bardo up for a staged kidnapping plot to extort money from her husband. Her self-destructive and nihilistic behaviour makes her completely unlikable until the scene where we come to understand Laure and the battle of identities within her. As Bardo relentlessly tries to talk her into leaving the extortion plot – by making a different choice – and go away with him, she refuses and says:

“You know why no good deed goes unpunished? Because this world is hell and you are nothing but a fucking patsy.”

In this minute moment of honesty, we begin to understand her character. The good deed Laure is referring to is her saving Veronica’s life at the Cannes Film Femme FataleFestival, and it is now clear the “femme fatale” is a mere façade shielding her bitter disappointment in the world. She risked a great deal to do right and she was punished for it. The tabloid image Bardo took of Laure didn’t expose her; it exposed the façade of the identity Laure subsequently chose but nevertheless loathed. The classy woman wearing sunglasses and expensive fur living with a man she never loved.

Bardo hated himself for taking the picture, and Laure hated what the picture exposed; these two choices brought them where they were. In Laurence Knapp’s book titled Brian De Palma: Interviews, I discovered a revealing segment in the transcript of an interview the director gave in 1998 talking about his recently released film Snake Eyes:

“Premiere: There’s a government conspiracy, and when the Nicolas Cage character does the right thing, he gets punished for it. It’s a pretty bleak worldview.

De Palma: There is a line he will not cross. No good deed goes unpunished. [Laughs] I don’t know why that is. It keeps happening a lot [in my movies]. Maybe God works in very odd ways.”

De Palma’s response not long before he crafted the script for Femme Fatale is quite remarkable. He never really dealt with the possibility of a divine being in Femme Fatalehis films. We can be fairly sure about his views on religion based on the extremely unflattering portrayal of Christian fundamentalist Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in his famous horror film Carrie (1976).

But the concept of divinity is different from religion altogether; people who tend to have the ability to explore the concept in a meaningful way are often not religious and unbound by the burden of ancient texts. The exploration of this concept might be what De Palma did in Femme Fatale.

In a sinister climax of this world of wrongs, Laure and Bardo meet Laure’s husband on a bridge and after Bardo exposes Laure’s plan to the man, she shoots both of them. She is then discovered and attacked by her ex-partners and thrown off the bridge. As Bardo dies, the precognitive image of a drowning Ophelia seen before catches up with Laure. The two of them perish at the same moment – in a world where they submitted to their darker sides.

Laure then wakes up in the bath in Lily’s flat, and a distressed Lily enters just as it happened seven years before. While excessive amounts of water frequently occur in scenes, and clocks always show the same time as the clock in the bathroom up to this point, all indicates Laure had a precognition of a possible future.

The significance of Nicolas Bardo, his choice and the fact that he and Laure die at exactly the same time, would imply otherwise. I think these objects and Femme Fatalephenomena – along with the “Déjà vu 2008” poster – are anomalies in a world that actually existed and needed to come to an end so both Laure and Bardo could return to a point where they are given a chance to make different choices.

And they do. First Laure prevents Lily – her double – from committing suicide and tells her to get on the plane to the United States, meet her future husband and live the life Laure had stolen from her. On her way to the airport Lily gets a lift from a truck driver, whose truck might already be familiar to the perceptive viewer.

Because of Laure making the choice to save Lily, Lily is allowed to give the truck driver a gift: a necklace with a crystal ball that used to belong to her daughter. Lily prophesizes that the truck driver’s daughter will eventually get bored with it and the artefact will end up back in the truck hanging over the windscreen.

Seven years later Bardo too gets his chance to make a choice. Lily is back in France as the wife of the US ambassador – they are happily married with three children. Bardo refuses to take Lily’s picture and therefore is in place sitting on his balcony with his camera for the extraordinary event.

Laure is also in place for the event; she meets Veronica who’s been fencing the diamonds. Veronica gives Laure her share in a metallic briefcase, and as they say goodbye, we realise they had an affair before the heist took place. The crystal ball in the truck that’s about to pass by, Laure with the metallic briefcase and Bardo sitting on his balcony with the camera ready to capture a Femme Fatalepivotal moment, are the three components this event needs for a miracle to occur. Indicating the presence of a divine being, this time the clouds begin to move in the opposite direction – away from the sun, allowing light rays to hit the surface below.

In a truly magnificent climax we see the extraordinary event for the second time. Black Tie and the other man from the heist attack Veronica the same way they did before, but this time a ray of light hits the metallic briefcase Laure is holding, which then travels to Bardo’s camera and the windscreen of the truck. Lily’s crystal ball collects and intensifies the light – blinding the driver who loses control of the truck which eventually kills Veronica’s attackers instead of her. Bardo is also blinded by light as he looks through the camera’s viewfinder. But the camera itself isn’t vulnerable to the blinding force, capturing a pivotal moment of divinity.

Contrasting the camera with Bardo’s eye is De Palma’s tribute to the art of the image; telling us that its perception can ultimately show things invisible to the human eye. De Palma tells us we need art and we need the image.

Laure is now free from fear of her own image and is given divine reward for saving Veronica, and for saving Lily. As Bardo’s image depicting the Femme Fatalemiraculous moment becomes the final piece of his photographic masterpiece – a giant composite image also known as photo collage – he runs to the street to meet Laure for the first time in this world of second chances.

Without compromise, Femme Fatale is the film where De Palma reveals the inner workings of his own mind to the highest possible degree. Choices creating parallel universes, time travel, divine intervention, miracles, art, love and a truly profound exploration of one’s relationship with the image of the Self.

Laure, played superbly by Rebecca Romijn, ranks very highly amongst my favourite female characters in fiction. De Palma cannot evade accusations of misogyny and was accused of it again for Femme Fatale. The accusers – like many times before – take only a single image out of Bardo’s composite masterpiece shown at the end of the film, and observe it without context.

When Laure momentarily lets down the façade of the femme fatale and tells Bardo that she is the way she is because this is how she can see herself survive, is not only a genuinely touching moment but also a very personal idea of the auteur. There, we want Laure to find redemption, love, happiness and she eventually does. When we look at Laure in the context of the composite image De Palma created, we find a beautiful character.

Anyone interested in the concept of the image and its relationship with the human mind must take a closer look at Brian De Palma’s body of work but will most certainly find Femme Fatale an absolutely unforgettable piece. A pinnacle of filmmaking, Femme Fatale truly deserves the title that gets thrown around a little too often these days: It’s a masterpiece in the true sense of the word.

About Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

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”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.