She Lives by Night

by Steven Snyder

As its title all but proclaims, “Femme Fatale” is constructed around one central, fascinating female character, Laura Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). As in all noir films, Ash is the standard femme fatale archetype; a hard-edged woman who refuses to conform to female stereotypes, who is seen as a threat by men for her intelligence and shrewdness and uses her sexuality to manipulate those around her.

To appreciate “Femme Fatale,” one must first be intrigued by this dark, seductive and mysterious heroine. To this end, writer and director Brian De Palma (“The Untouchables”) constantly reinvents her. Ash is initially one member in a group of thieves at the Cannes Film Festival, set on stealing jewels from a gorgeous French film actress. Far from being a team player, she double-crosses her partners within the film’s first fifteen minutes. Then, almost killed for her betrayal, Ash drops out of sight for seven years, reappearing, ironically, as a sweet, innocent French wife.

It is in this chapter that Ash meets Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), a photographer who has threatened her life by snapping her photo. In a surprising, but completely believable twist, Ash morphs from sweet to sour, from an innocent wife to a manipulating temptress, as her new plan involving Nicolas is finally revealed.

“Femme Fatale” is an obvious tribute to the great film noirs of the past. It opens with Ash watching “Double Indemnity,” perhaps the greatest of all film noirs, and “Femme Fatale” toys with similar themes of temptation, betrayal, and shrouded motivation. It opens with an audacious heist, ends with a very surprising ending, and in between creates scenes that are completely unpredictable.

The movie works because De Palma never penetrates the bubble of mystique surrounding Ash. He allows her to remain elusive and tantalizing, constantly changing her identity, and De Palma employs numerous shifts in time and location calling the very reality of her situation is into question. Is she dreaming? Is this the “real” Ash, or is she pretending? Like all engaging femme fatales, Ash propels the story through the audience’s desire to discover not the fate of the diamonds, but the truth about her.

Sadly, this does not have much to do with the film’s performances. Banderas seems blank and impassive, present merely as an observer, and Romijn-Stamos, while jaw-dropping, heart-poundingly beautiful, brings little more to her role than that inherent beauty.

The catch? It doesn’t matter. De Palma has written and crafted a thriller so inspired as a mystery that the performances are obscured by the spectacle. “Femme Fatale’s” dialogue is stripped down to the essentials, its story moving forward instead by sexual tension, plot twists and creative camera techniques, notably De Palma’s use of split screen to direct the audience’s attention and construction of the Cannes heist as more silent film than Hollywood blockbuster.

But in a disastrous third act, the movie’s more exciting moments are eviscerated by the film’s final surprise. One monstrous twist too many and De Palma seems to apologize for his earlier, edgier decisions. Ash is absolved of her provocative behavior, and her elaborate mystery that will compel so many viewers to remain glued to the screen ends in absurdity.

Despite its flaws, “Femme Fatale” is enticing filmmaking. It teases, surprises, and confuses. Too bad it also sells out.

“Femme Fatale,” Rated R. Directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote. Now playing at area theaters.