The last time I was so torn on the content of a movie — that it was either constituted the worst good movie I’d ever seen, or the best bad one — was Original Sin, which also starred Antonio Banderas. That may or may not be coincidental, but it’s beside the point here. It never occurred to me that Original Sin might be a cockeyed great movie — and that very much is the case with Femme Fatale.
Unfortunately, Femme Fatale is largely being panned by critics (with a few notable exceptions, like Roger Ebert) and mishandled by Warner Bros., which doesn’t appear to have a clue how to market it. What they’ve got is a full-blown “director’s movie” that is nearly as convoluted and surreal as David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. What they’ve tried to sell is a thriller. I’m sure that’s the basis on which writer/director Brian De Palma pitched it to them — much as Orson Welles sold one of his best films, The Lady From Shanghai, by pitching it as a trashy thriller.
It’s not very surprising: De Palma has a spotty track record at best. I have unreservedly liked only two of his films — Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie. For me, everything else has been either very flawed, or downright bad. De Palma’s last attempt at a Hitchcockian thriller, Raising Cain, was an unintentionally funny mish-mash of Hitch by way of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Since thrillers weren’t working for him, he went back into the gangster genre with Carlito’s Way, apparently thinking he might duplicate the box-office success of his remakes of Scarface and The Untouchables, after which he marked time before reinventing himself as a hired-hand with movies like Mission Impossible and Mission to Mars. But De Palma proves you can take the director out of the auteur, but you can’t take the auteur out of the director.
It was only a matter of time before he made another personal film. What was not a given is that the results would be as spectacularly over-the-top as Femme Fatale. Whether or not the movie’s great on any other level, it’s a great Brian De Palma film — slick, flashy, accomplished, quirky, the direction out in front of everything, and derivative.
Derivative? Yes, but in an unusual way. De Palma has taken a lot of heat over the years for imitating Hitchcock, and Hitch’s ghost is certainly lurking around the edges of Femme Fatale; long stretches of the film have Vertigo written all over them. But in this case, that’s not a bad thing.
Yet De Palma has here added something quite new to the mix — another influence. Who? Brian De Palma, actually. And that’s a lot more reasonable than it might seem. For one thing, no matter how derivative he’s been over the years, there’s been a wildly original streak running through his work. There are things in Phantom of the Paradise and, especially, Carrie, that we’d never seen on the screen before, some of which have since been assimilated as part of our filmmaking vocabulary. De Palma never gets credit for this, but one has only to look at the sequence of Sissy Spacek and William Katt on the dance floor in Carrie to know it’s true.
More importantly, in Femme Fatale De Palma is serving up a distillation of his entire career; there are echoes of nearly every film he’s ever made within it. Part of its ending is a riff on the silly conclusion of Raising Cain. Yet it works here — in part because we get the buildup to this ending once, and then De Palma surprises us by going in a different direction, only to later return to the same setup and play it out in the expected manner, by which time that’s unexpected! It’s a kind of summing-up, but a summing-up that is also an amazing extension.
Without giving too much away, I can say this: Think of taking Carrie’s famous shock ending and the way it — very fairly — plays the viewer, and then extending that to cover nearly the entire length of a film. This tactic is playful. It’s fair. And stretched to this degree, it becomes very nearly surrealistic. It may be a cinematic conjuring trick, but it’s a masterful one. And De Palma knows it. Femme Fatale is the work of a filmmaker drunk on the possibilities of the medium itself — and that the film arrives wrapped in the clothes of a potboiler thriller is part of the joke.
I was at first puzzled by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score containing one section that was almost exactly Ravel’s “Bolero” and another that almost might have been Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.” And then I realized this, too, was part of the joke. What more could a filmmaker who’s always being accused of imitating other directors want than a score that obviously imitates other composers? It’s all sly and clever, trashy and overwrought. And whatever else it is or isn’t, Femme Fatale is pure filmmaking of a kind we don’t see much of these days. It’s vintage De Palma and I, at least, am glad to have him back in form.