Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale: The Only Thing Missing Is The Woman Part One

Part One Part Two

(SPOILERS for FEMME FATALE and BLOW OUT)

A movie by Brian De Palma, released almost ten years ago, that intrigued me when I saw it, and which I’ve looked at a few times in the past week, to try and get a better fix on.

A good starting point, I think, is that there are no characters in the movie, in the “realistic” sense. The main characters in the movie are archetypes who have been summoned to play their parts for the edification of the audience. We might be able to imagine the off-screen life of Carlito Brigante or Carrie White; there is no off-screen life for the men and women here. They exist only as images, each their archetype, nothing more, defined by their emblems.

The names I employ for these archetypes are somewhat arbitrary; the Good Daughter could also be the Grieving Widow, the Hero could also be the Patsy, etc. However, they should all be recognizable to anyone who reads novels and watches movies. A more formal, more diligent study here might look at the history of character types. These should be suitable enough. I think it is unambiguous that all have only one or two defining traits in the course of the movie, and unambiguous about what those traits are.

The Femme Fatale – the icy blonde. Her emblem, a sexy dress.

Femme Fatale

The Good Daughter – a grieving widow. Her emblem, a flower print dress.

Lily in costume

The Slut – A woman who acts only through sexual motives, to be used and abused through sex. Her emblem, her nudity.

Veronica in snake bra

The Hero / Voyeur – an observer, the proxy for the audience, his emblems, a motorbike and a camera.

Bardo with camera

The Businessman – a modern-day King. He has money and power. Emblem: a business suit.

Watts

The Bodyguard – the King’s guard, his emblem, a car with tinted windows.

Shiff in car

The Thieves – the villains. Their sole interest is getting the money, nothing else. Their emblems: tuxedo, cap, leather jacket.

Black Tie and Racine

The Detective – an investigator who should be an ally of the hero, but is an obstacle to the hero’s quest, and may be in league with the powerful businessman. No visual emblem, but: everything he says is either an interrogative question or an accusation.

detective

The Clown – a ridiculous, weak, harmless figure who can be humiliated by others without fear of retribution. In this movie, he is the guard who’s the inside man in the Cannes robbery. Emblem: he’s rather fat.

security guard at heist

A key line in the movie, I believe, is this:

LAURE / LILY

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

They are in hell, they have no freedom of choice, they can only act out their roles as they are defined. Lily can only be the bad woman, Nicolas can only be the patsy. The only possible reference I can think of is Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, with the key difference that the actors can never break or talk outside of these roles. Taking the characters as archetypes helps explain one of the stranger moments in the movie; Black Tie, leaving prison in the very same costume he arrived in, to be picked up by Racine, also in the same outfit that he wore in the heist. It’s the same principle for why a cartoon character like Lisa Simpson always wears the same dress, or a film noir satire might feature a detective who always wore a trenchcoat.

The mid-section of the movie deals with a thriller archetype (the Femme Fatale) falling into another movie, a family tragedy, and being mistaken for another archetype (the Good Daughter), then moving back into her own movie under this guise.

The structure and characters have some similarities to another movie also written by De Palma, Blow Out, though we can speak of actual, often complex, characters there, and not simple archetypes.

There we have the hero / observer, Jack Terry (John Travolta),

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The tainted woman, Sally (Nancy Allen),

Blow Out Femme Fatale

Where Lily has former criminal associates, so Sally has a former criminal associate, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The security, the unhinged Burke (John Lithgow):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The slut, an anonymous prostitute (Deborah Everton):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The detective, Mackey (John Aquino):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

There is no king in Blow Out, only one that Jack imagines he is fighting against, who is the vast power behind the conspiracy; he is actually only fighting against the mediocrity Burke. In terms of structure, Blow Out plays with a male viewer’s expectations; the opening sequence is a parody of a movie that could be produced in the expectation of a male audience. A group of sorority women are observed by a serial killer. They are in various ways, tainted by sex, and will soon be killed by this lunatic, with the entire sequence shot through the eyes of the killer. Blow Out then cuts away from this movie to its main plot, which gives us many of the same elements, but not in the way the audience wants; there is, again, a serial killer, Burke, who kills a series of women tainted by sex, whose murders we see up close. A woman, Sally, who has gone to bed with men to blackmail them, is eventually killed by Burke. Where the murders in the pre-credit film might have given us thrills, these killings provide only despair.

Femme Fatale opens with a sequence that has been pointed out as unrealistic; it is utterly, self-consciously, unrealistic since it is conceived not from reality, but created entirely for the expectations of the (male) audience. A half-naked woman; glittering jewels; a daring theft; blood; a power blackout; night vision goggles; not least, sex between two beautiful women. The “Bolero” that plays is not only about the variations in this scene, between the various scenes in the movie, but that this heist is only an outrageous variation on others that have gone before it. The theft is ridiculous, but so are most movie thefts which are designed to have elements (a sexy girl, a helicopter, high tech equipment) for their visual and kinetic aspect. A movie has these elements not because most robberies have them, but for the same reason a circus has a dancing bear and a firebreather.

That those in the robbery are only limited archetypes, limited in their actions is emphasised by Black Tie’s opening line. They are directions for what will happen during the robbery. There are no names, only symbols (“Snake”, “Wetsuit”, “Torpedos” etc.) Their actions will lie not with their individual character in the scene, but entirely within the limits of these types. The Femme Fatale knows no one; the name she’s given here (“Laure Ash”) is a false one. The one she adopts later (“Lily”) is not hers either. She is a nameless archetype, the bad woman.

BLACK TIE

Listen up. At twenty two hundred, Wetsuit’s down the hole when the snake hits the carpet. Security lifts the key. I terminate the torpedoes. You charm the Snake into the stall. Bait and switch. At twenty two twenty, Wetsuit turns out the lights. Glasses on. I bag the snake. Key in the bag. Bag to the boat. No radio unless absolutely necessary. Code Red. Five minutes to blackout. Drop everything. Walk away. If the cops get you, tell them the truth. You know no one.

A second point: the opening image, is Laura as a dim shadowy veil over earlier incarnations of this movie`s archetypes, the Femme Fatale and Patsy of Double Indemnity.

Femme Fatale reflected in TV

So, these elements are there, yet they are not given play the way a man might want. The woman does not turn out to be good, but stays within her definition, is always bad. She has sex with the hero, but never gives herself over to him. There is even the possibility that the Femme Fatale does not just have sex with a woman for this crime, but is a full-blown lesbian, with no sexual interest in men.

THE OPENING

I will only make a few short notes on the very intricate jewel theft scene. It should be studied in-depth, shot by shot, on how it is organized, and I cannot do so at this time.

Black Tie is designed as an archetype to only be interested in stealing the jewels, and later, getting the money from them being fenced. He doesn’t exist outside of this intent. I think we see this, almost comically, in two moments during the theft.

In the opening preparation scene, the very beautiful Femme Fatale gets up off her bed, topless, yet he never breaks his concentration from his speech outlining the robbery; he does not even acknowledge her nakedness with a furtive look.

Femme Fatale and Black Tie

This happens again, during the robbery.

Femme Fatale Veronica in bathroom

Femme Fatale Veronica and Black Tie

The two women are having sex behind the glass. Most men might steal a glance; in the broad vocabulary of a heist scene, a criminal might be expected to give a nasty smile or laugh. Black Tie is entirely indifferent to it, does not even have to fight an impulse to look. His archetype’s only trait is getting the money. There is a tradition, of course, of male and female characters of different races not attracted to each other by deliberate design. This may be a subtle commentary on that as well.

Beginning in the theft sequence, we see an emphasis throughout the movie in controlling one’s image and observing what others do not. A key plot point is for Laure to obtain a false passport. Another key point is when her photograph is taken without her permission. Throughout, characters are at an advantage or disadvantage by what they know or don’t know, information obtained from great distance, oftentimes seen at great distance.

This starts with the heist. We do not see Laure’s face close up in the pre-theft scene. Our first look at her face is on the forged press card, giving a false identity, a photo of her, but not looking like her in any part of the movie. The camera then moves up, but her face is blocked by a camera, one like Bardo’s, which allows her to see at great distance.

Laure press card

Laure with camera

The sequence ends with the power going out. What happens next might be a good visual metaphor for much of the movie; the Femme Fatale walks about in the dark seeing perfectly, while other characters, and the moviegoers themselves, stumble about blind. This should not be taken that she is in control; she is ultimately a prisoner of her archetype.

Laure in thief costume

Night vision

Night vision

The final moment in the heist points up to the intentional ridiculous quality of it; the elaborate attempt to obtain a single key all just to unlock a simple door. Given the high-tech equipment available, it would seem an ordinary lockpick might be easier.

The opening bookend was of the shadowy Femme Fatale reflected on the TV, gradually becoming more visible. The closing bookend, and the beginning of the next part of the movie, is now her solid image in the cab, Paris reflected in the glass, passing the Eiffel, near where she’ll later drown.

Femme Fatale in car

THE AUTHOR, THE FEMME FATALE, THE AUDIENCE

There are some valid critiques of the idea that the all exclusive genius behind a movie is a director, responsible for each and every choice; I won’t argue with these, except to say that when watching a movie I often assign some individual identity as creator of the world. Even more so in a thriller where the audience is conscious of an inteventionist god, if you will, that alters and shifts perspective for the fullest effect of suspense, rather than, say, a “realistic” film where one is provided the illusion that we are seeing the unfiltered ordinary days in the life of a village, a relationship, etc.

This is a thriller, so the audience expects the author to withhold information for the effect of suspense. To keep the fact that Raskolnikov killed the pawnbroker a secret is pointless and would make Crime and Punishment hopeless confusing; to reveal the identity of the criminal in the opening paragraph of a Sherlock Holmes story, or hint too strongly at the identity, would destroy the point of the story.

A more succinct description is given by Joan Didion in her novel Democracy, when the writer herself steps in to give an explanation of her effects:

I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill in the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise and be surprised, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know.

Each character in Femme Fatale attempts to have an advantage over the other by obtaining more information on the others while concealing their own details. Racine, Shiff, and Bardo all use binoculars to see at great distance. Shiff conceals himself in a car with tinted windows. Bardo pretends to be a gay man, in order to put Laure at ease and enter her room. Racine and Black Tie pretend to be homeless to put Shiff at ease. Laure disguises herself in a wig, and later, pretends to be Lily.

When watching Femme Fatale one is aware that the author (one might substitute writer-director Brian De Palma’s name here) keeps information from us, but also provides a sense that we are gods of this world, knowing and seeing more than almost all the characters on screen, except, of course, for the Femme Fatale.

Again and again, we have a god’s eye view, looking down on the characters from a great distance.

Femme Fatale in bathroom overhead

Bardo overhead

Femme Fatale at Lily's overhead

Bardo in hotel overhead

Bardo with police overhead

Bardo arrested overhead

When Laure hides the gun, she knows where it is, but we do as well; when Nicolas enters the room, we have an idea where the gun will be hidden before he finds it.

Femme Fatale hides gun

Others cannot see into Shiff’s car, but we go inside it. We know of Laure’s background in the heist and the episode in the country, which neither Bardo nor Watts know about.

Early on, we’re given an illustration of the limited information the characters have, compared to our point of view, as well as how crucial it is for them to have access to hidden or inaccessible information.

Bardo takes a photo of Laure, which he can take at incredible distance because of his camera. Laure retreats to the church, where she is out of reach of Bardo’s camera, while still falling under the eye of Racine’s. We see her close-up. She opens the directions for where to get the new passport. We are given an intimate view of the paper; Racine sees this vital information from a great distance.

split screen Bardo and Racine

split screen Femme Fatale

split screen Femme Fatale and note

We then move to perspectives in the church. On the left, is Laure’s view, the undifferentiated crowd at a distance. For our benefit, we’re given a close view of Lily’s parents reacting to who they think is their daughter.

split screen church

Laure, frightened, leaves the church. Bardo stays focused on the photo of this ambiguous exchange, while outside and around him, the story continues.

split screen Bardo looks at photo

This perhaps foreshadows the mistake he makes later in the movie, that the entire story is contained in this photo, and no further details are needed. From the police interrogation:

BARDO
Mrs. Watts was trying to kill herself. I stopped her so she set me up for you guys, to get me out of her way.

SERRA
How did you come up with that?

BARDO
I read a lot of mysteries and I just figure out the endings half way…I put the clues together and I know what happened, sir.

It is after Lily wipes off the bruise and knocks the maid into a coma that we realize that the Femme Fatale knows far more than we do, whatever our sense of full knowledge. We are in the same position as Bardo after he takes the photo of Laure and Veronica at the church; there are details outside of what we see that alter everything.

This ties in with the almost totemic aspect in the movie of being photographed or recorded. There is, of course, the ancient superstition that a photograph captures the soul. Here, there’s always a great danger associated with any kind of visual or audio copy.

Bardo taking Laure’s picture,

Bardo split screen taking picture

Laure photographed before she is nearly killed,

Racine taking picture

The photo of Laure which endangers her. In this movie where characters hide who they are and what they know, while trying to see further than others, Bardo is only able to take the photo by passing himself off as a blind man:

Bardo as beggar taking picture

Femme Fatale surprised in car

Security head Shiff, his massive head dominating the screen relative to Bardo tells him all that he knows of the man and his power over him. Bardo, of course, has no idea where Shiff is, and can’t see him anyway because of the car’s tinted windows:

Shiff taking to Bardo

SHIFF

I don’t think you realize who you’re dealing with, Mr. Bardo. We know all about you, your overdrawn bank account your criminal record. I suggest you get that picture back and you bring it to me at the residence tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Sharp.

Shiff is able to see via his binoculars that Bardo will be wearing a wire when talking to Watts. This cannot be allowed.

Bardo and recorder

SHIFF

Park Bardo in the office until I can get…Hold on a second.

(SHIFF sees BARDO through binoculars take out a recording device and insert a disc)

I don’t believe it. This paparazzi scum is wearing a wire. Make sure he doesn’t get past security.

Bardo’s threat at the end is that he has recorded Lily, and she kills him for it.

Bardo after recording Femme Fatale

There are always practical reasons in each instance for why people do not want to be recorded, but it is also a contrast with a movie where images are frequently false in their isolation, that these recorded images and sounds are invested with sacred truth. Another point: a character that is only an archetype is entirely revealed when their veil is down and their self recorded. There is no multitude of character, of which this is only one aspect; this is the only aspect.

A few further examples of the limited vision of the audience. At the beginning of the middle episode, we have a split screen where the left side stays with Bardo on his balcony, with the right side starting in near the same position as the left, then moving out through the sky, from the top to the bottom of the church, across the street, to the cafe. It’s an incredible space and freedom compared to the fixed position of Bardo. At the end of this, Bardo picks up his camera and photographs the women at the cafe, the very place the right side of the screen is at. Whatever our freedom, we run on the rails set by the author, and despite our incredible freedom, we have only been brought to the same point as Bardo, who seems to lack our freedom of movement. Our greater freedom as a viewer isn’t illusory, but the viewer remains very much the slave to the author’s vision.

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

Near the end of the movie, we again move beyond the tinted windows of Shiff’s car, to see what someone outside would not, Shiff held hostage by Black Tie and Racine. A fight breaks out, but we are unable to see the outcome as the author now pulls us outside the car. Where before the camera might move further and further up, a god’s eye view, now the camera moves further and further down till it is level with the car’s bumper – our power of observation is at the whim of this author.

gun pointed at Shiff

outside Shiff's car

A scene between Serra and Watts’ counsel, Stansfield Phillips re-states this idea. The detective simply wishes to “see” Ms. Watts. Phillips will not allow such a thing. The camera moves from a high privileged view, to a point where the spectator is at a worm’s eye view, looking up at these characters, when Phillips makes her pronouncement.

SERRA
I’d still like to talk to Mrs. Watts.

PHILLIPS
And what crime has she committed?

SERRA
No crime, I just want to see her.

PHILLIPS
Well, I’m sure we all want to see lots of people but fortunately in our country and in yours they are not compelled to see us. Good day, Inspector.

Stansfield from above

Stansfield from below

Another, more striking point is made through the collages assembled by Bardo. These are vast pictures of the space before his balcony, made up of individual photos taken of the area about him. They are on the one hand accurate, yet false. There are three collages seen during the course of the movie:

The first, when Bardo takes the picture of Laure meeting Veronica,

first view of collage

the second, during the middle episode after he has been double crossed by Laure,

second view of collage

the third, at the very end, after Black Tie and Racine are killed:

third view of collage

A quick detour; this collage is mirrored by collages in the room of Lily’s child,

collage in room of Lily's daughter

The collages are a diligent attempt to re-create the world outside. They are, of course, selective, showing only the vision Bardo has chosen. The first collage contains no people except the Veronica and Laure meeting; the second, does not even contain this picture. The third is most important of all, containing a radically different image, of sunlight bursting through, Laure reacting to the accident, the accident itself. We have seen how long it takes Bardo to take and print each picture, so it’s not possible for him to take the pictures and alter the collage before running down to help Laure. The landscape does not change based on what Bardo does and does not observe, but what the author decrees. In one moment, the visual collage has entirely changed; this may also account for the disappearance of Laure and Veronica in the second collage. She changes her identity, and her past itself completely disappears.

This idea of authorial intervention, very close to that idea of an interventionist god, converge in the final scene. Lily and Veronica are saved, not through their own actions, or Bardo’s, but sunlight moving in an intricate set of reflections to strike the eyes of the truck’s driver. The complicated route of the light reminds me of the complex engineering of the opening heist; the sun could well be the usual god symbol; it is, in effect, arbitrary, coming about only because of the mercy Laure shows earlier. The mercy shown by Laure, of course, is also from the author himself, the archetype willed to act one way rather than another. This may also be part of the relationship between author and the audience. The audience wants a happy ending, whatever the circumstances, and the author has given it to them.

DAVID HOCKNEY ON PHOTOGRAPHY

The collages are very much an homage to the work of David Hockney, who would construct an image through multiple small images, creating a cubist effect. An example would be “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2″.

Pearblossom Hwy., 11

Hockney’s thoughts on photography and perspective, expressed eloquently in That’s The Way I See It, may be of some value in thinking about this movie. A small sample of relevance:

In the late seventies, when I didn’t do that many paintings, I worked a lot in the theatre. Now the theatre, or the kind of theatre I was working in, the opera, is Italian theatre, that is, it is deeply connected with perspective, it illusionistic theatre beyond a plane it is a box: there is a proscenium and that proscenium represents a plane, Beyond that plane is an illusion. In front of the plane is you, the audience, and, in a sense, there’s a separation between you and it. There is, of course, another kind of theatre, very well known in England: the Shakespearean theatre, which is quite different. The Shakespearean theatre is Cubist theatre in a way, in the sense that it is not an illusion behind a proscenium. The stage juts out into the audience and occupies the same space as the audience, so different people see completely different angles. Shakespeare did not need illusionistic settings. I think perhaps that’s why Shakespeare never fully works on television, because television, being a box, belongs to the Italian conception of theatre. Beyond the screen is an illusion and, of course, the box. These illusions involve perspective.

It took me a long time…to realize fully that, contrary to what some people may think, there is no actual distortion in Picasso. What he does may appear distorted only if you think one particular way of seeing, which is always from a distance and always in a kind of stopped, frozen time. The moment you realize what Picasso is doing, how he is using time as well – and that is why you could see round the back of the body as well as the front – once you begin to realize this, it becomes a very profound experience, because you begin to see that what he is doing is not a distortion, and lowly it then begins to look more and more real. In fact it is naturalism that begins to look less and less real. And that, of course, leads you into thinking about the nature of realism an what it is and what it isn’t. You become aware, perhaps more than ever before, that there are different forms of realism and that some are more real than others.

One reason, among others, why I think Picasso is so crucial is because he brings very much to the fore the question of versimilitude versus the remaking of appearance. And what led me into questioning the verisimilitude of naturalism was that it was not real enough. Because the problem is not that naturalism is too real, but that it just is not real enough.

We tend to think of the photograph as a perfect record of life. But in fact that photograph is the ultimate Renaissance picture. It is the mechanical formulation of the theories of perspective of the Renaissance, of the invention in fifteenth-century Italy of the vanishing point, which many people think was one of the most profound inventions of all time. Brunelleschi, looking through a hole at a street in Florence, makes a depiction of it from a fixed view-point. The Renaissance painters, of course, always suspected the rigid rules of perspective and bent them – as all good painters would.

Conventional art history takes the line that Cubism was a forerunner of abstraction by 1925. That was the year that saw the beginnings of Mondrian and much else…But that is where we run into a problem, because people then thought, ah yes, we have abstraction, what we call abstraction, which does not seem to look like the world, or it doesn’t matter whether it looks like the world or not; and then we have representation, where things do look like the world; and the ultimate representation is the photograph.

I, like everybody else, went along with that thinking. But now I am not sure at all about that. I think, in fact, the more you go on the more you realize there’s only abstraction. The photograph is a refined abstraction, a highly refined one, just as perspective is. In this sense, a Canaletto painting is a more abstract, and much less ‘real’, picture than an eighteenth-century Chinese scroll.

A BRIEF NOTE: THE FROZEN CLOCKS OF THE MIDDLE EPISODE

In the middle sequence, all clocks are frozen at 3:33 (a trinity of trinities, having both mystic and christian significance, which I won’t go into now). An overview,

bath clock

clock in poster

clock in car

clock in church

clock at station

clock at police station

clock at embassy

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM. “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2″ copyright David Hockney.

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