Monday, August 15, 2005

Erotic Noir

The genre known as film noir came into being during the 1940’s and 1950’s and is largely regarded as an American genre in spite of its title donated by French critics. Thomas Schatz describes the progenitors of this genre as displaying two distinct styles: “visually, these films were darker and compositionally more abstract than most Hollywood films; thematically, they were considerably more pessimistic and brutal in their presentation of American life.”[1] Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) immediately evokes the film noir genre, not only by way of its title but also in the fact that the initial sound and image comes from a clip of Double Indemnity (1944), one of the seminal works in the genre featuring cinema’s most memorable femme fatale. However, De Palma does not adhere to either of the elements that Schatz supplies for the genre. Instead it appears more in line with what the genre has come to generally (but not exclusively) represent: the plethora of hard-boiled detective mysteries that were being produced during the late 1940s and ‘50s. Films that often center on a morally ambiguous protagonist called in to work on a case that leads into society’s seedy underbelly where he must struggle against the social system to do what he believes to be right. The protagonist is usually drawn deeper into this world by a “femme fatale”, a woman who seduces him with her supposed innocence and naiveness but later is revealed to be a savvy and genuine threat possessing ulterior motives.

On the matter of genre, Schatz also says that “as one sees more genre films, one tends to negotiate the genre less by its individual films than by its deep structure, those rules and conventions which render” the genre.[2] This is one aspect that makes Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) an invigorating cinematic experience. As an auteur, De Palma’s two prominent characteristics are scrambling of genres and mimicry of his favorite directors (Hitchcock in particular).

After the introductory nods to the genre, the first act of Femme Fatale proceeds more like an erotic thriller, a genre De Palma has more experience in with works like Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). The film begins with a diamond heist sequence in which the femme fatale, Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), seduces a female model by guiding her to the bathroom for an erotic encounter that echoes the opening shower sequence of Dressed to Kill. It is not until the second act in which the male protagonist, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), takes on a larger role that it turns into typical film noir. Bardo is an updated version of the cynical gumshoe from the late 1940s; the 21st century version has morphed into a cynical paparazzo. Laure, the target he is ordered to photograph, comes to fully embody the femme fatale role that was only hinted at during the first act.

First, she intellectually seduces Bardo by playing the battered, damsel in distress role, dressed in a virginal white outfit complete with scarf and black sunglasses, to capture his interest. Second, she physically seduces him in order to frame him for her supposed kidnapping. Lastly, she emotionally seduces him through jealousy in order to ensure him going through with the final stage of her plan. As the evidence mounts, Bardo sinks deeper and deeper into trouble with no apparent refuge. Similar to his film noir forefather in Double Indemnity, Bardo eventually meets his fate at the hands of the femme fatale’s bullet - although this is not where De Palma chooses to end his film. Instead, the third act transforms into a sort of fairy tale where the film noir segment is revealed to have been a prophetic dream on the part of Laure. Completely going against the generic conventions, Laure chooses a path of redemption and romance instead of greed and murder. This change of heart is accepted because De Palma has transmuted his characterization of the femme fatale, most notably by promoting her to primary character as well as visually representing her more vibrantly than the shadowy women of the classical Hollywood noir.

De Palma also voices an underlying subtext that could never be made explicit during the heyday of Hollywood cinema: homosexuality. In what can initially be taken as a throw-away scene, Bardo impersonates a homosexual in order to gain Laure’s trust. It is easy to ignore the implications of this scene because Banderas has played a similar version of this homosexual persona before, both for laughs and sincerity. However, if one is to look at the film through the classical auteur theory, we must question why De Palma would include the scene. One can conjecture it is commentary on the subliminal message sent in some of the old films where the male detective is better off on his own and his problems are all caused by the presence of a woman. It is also intriguing that De Palma comments on the genre itself by making the film noir segment the only portion to exist entirely outside the realm of reality.

Classical auteur theorist, Andrew Sarris believes that the criteria for being considered an auteur is that “a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” as well as an interior meaning being “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”[3] Both thematically and technically, Femme Fatale shares many similarities with the rest of De Palma’s oeuvre. While his allusions to Hitchcock do not feature as blatantly as say the presence of Rear Window (1954) in Sisters (1973) or Psycho (1960) in Dressed to Kill, some subtle Hitchcockian tendencies can be discerned. The clearest visual similarity is the duality of the hair colors Laure wears in correlation to the Kim Novak character in Vertigo (1958). Thematically he utilizes the “wrong man” scenario during the Bardo being framed segment, a subject Hitchcock was very fond of using in films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959).

Another affinity to Hitchcock is De Palma’s obsession with voyeurism. This motif can be found in virtually all of his films, and Femme Fatale is no exception. Intrinsically there is the decision to have Bardo a voyeur by livelihood and by nature. The medium of photography takes precedent during key scenes in the story: Laure herself posing as a member of the paparazzi during the diamond heist, the numerous shots of the wedding photographer waiting for the sun to come out during the truck sequence as well as the film ending on a freeze frame emulating a snapshot followed by the collage of photographs that Bardo was compiling. Some of the most heavily voyeuristic sequences include Laure’s security guard secretly watching Bardo while negotiating the sale of the picture, Bardo watching Laure purchase a hand gun and the last seduction scene in which Laure performs a strip tease for another man while Bardo watches from the stairs. In these scenes, Laure’s knowledge of Bardo’s voyeurism fuels her actions; Bardo on the other hand is unaware that he is being examined; both by the direct action of the security guard and the reflexive manner of Laure watching him watch her.

De Palma’s dependence on homage is not to say he does not possess stylistic tendencies of his own, namely his revolutionary work using split-screen to show parallel action. His elaborate split-screen scenes in Femme Fatale are direct descendents of Sisters while the complicated overhead shots panning over walls of ceiling-less rooms in Snake Eyes is echoed during Bardo’s interrogation scene. There is also the reoccurring use of dream sequences in practically all his films, two of the most elaborate dreams being found in Femme Fatale and Dressed to Kill. The juxtaposition of dreams in these two is of importance in that Femme Fatale’s structure is one very lengthy dream book-ended by two reality segments while Dressed to Kill’s reality is book-ended by two lengthy dreams.

In response to Andrew Sarris’ definition of the auteur, Peter Wollen says that it is not enough to simply have recurring themes; the director “must be defined in terms of shifting relations, in their singularity as well as their uniformity.”[4] For more than twenty years, De Palma has been accomplishing variety by playing with genre conventions and invoking established auteurs within a spectrum of stories. While his creative stamp may lie most firmly in the erotic thriller, his career has encompassed war, spy/espionage, horror, comedy, psychological thriller, gangster and even science fiction. Wollen went on to describe a valuable work as being “one which challenges codes, overthrows established ways of reading or looking, not simply to establish new ones, but to compel an unending dialogue.”[5] This is certainly a fit description for Femme Fatale, a film that takes the obvious generic conventions of film noir and mixes them so thoroughly with DePalma’s auteur tendencies that it creates an amalgam that can no longer be described conclusively as a film noir, or even an erotic thriller for that matter.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genre and the Genre Film.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Wollen, Peter. “The Auteur Theory.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
[1] Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), 112.
[2] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 692.
[3] Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 562.
[4] Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 575.
[5] Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 580.

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