Tag Archives: David Hockney

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

Part One Part Two

(SPOILERS for FEMME FATALE and BLOW OUT)

THE ETERNAL RETURN

The middle episode of Femme Fatale is commonly described as a “dream” though it is more complicated than that.

As a preface to discussing this, we may look first at the preceding scenes. The Femme Fatale moves through an airport hotel, whose images and characters will recur in the middle episode.

She passes Shiff and Stansfield Phillips, Watts’ lawyer; however, here they appear as business associates, perhaps even a couple, rather than in their position as assistant to Shiff.

Shiff and Stansfield at elevator

She ascends in the elevator, with the maid, carrying champagne. This maid and the champagne, of course, re-appear.

maid with champagne

champagne bucket

Finally, as she walks along the passage, she passes Watts. Two details. The first,

Watts with wedding ring

is that he is wearing a wedding ring. He is married. On the plane, he no longer is.

The second:

Femme Fatale turns around

Femme Fatale keeps walking

Femme Fatale turns around again

The Femme Fatale looks back, twice, at this man. I do not believe this is a look of attraction, but recognition. She has seen him somewhere before, but where?

As she passes to her room, she sees Lily’s parents:

Femme Fatale looks down

Looking down on Lily's parents

This shot is echoed later on, as Nicolas Bardo sees her walk above him along the corridor:

Bardo looks up at Lily

Shot of Bardo looking up

She arrives at the room for her passport, the same room where later she and Bardo meet:

Lily at room 214

Bardo at room 214

She is thrown from the passage, where we get a close-up of her eyes. They have no tears, but we dissolve to a room where rain passes down over the windows.

Eyes of Femme Fatale

rain flowing down

This is a pastoral refuge, filled with flowers of mourning and pictures of animals. Lily is named after a flower, and she wears flower covered dresses. It might be considered a place of traditional feminine poses, female fecundity, the house where Laure is re-born as Lily is surrounded with rain, like the water of the embryo.

Laure picks up one of Lily’s flower print dresses. She hates it. The dress is for the Good Daughter archetype, not her.

Femme Fatale looks at dress

Lily kills herself. Laure looks on, like a voyeur, like Nicolas later on – she is framed by the drapes, as Nicolas is framed by the door when he watches her dance.

Laure looks on at suicide

Bardo looks on at Femme Fatale's lap dance

The scene begins with water streaming down the windows. It is bookended with what looks like a tear on a plane engine. Like this story, it seems to spin endlessly.

close up of plane rotor

Laure boards the plane. She wears an outfit whose color blends in with the color of the surrounding plane; she does not wish to stand out, she wants to blend in.

Femme Fatale on plane

Throughout this episode, the sound of pouring water is always highlighted on the soundtrack. This episode was born in water, the rain about the house, and it will end in water with Laure’s drowning.

On the plane,

water poured on plane

In the cafe with Bardo,

water poured in cafe

At the police station:

water poured at police station

Sitting with Watts. The wedding ring is now gone.

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane no ring now

So, we have the possibility that the people witnessed by Laure become re-animated in this dream, playing slightly different roles, with Shiff and Stansfield Phillips now working for Watts, Watts a single man, etc., the location of the hotel now being re-played in her dream.

There are two obstacles to this hypothesis. A small one is the re-appearance of Pierre, the security guard from the heist sequence in the bar. He, like Shiff and Phillips, has now been placed in a different role. However, based on what we’ve seen, the Femme Fatale never meets or sees Pierre. So, why does he re-appear in this dream?

Pierre at the bar

A more obvious point is Watts as a married man. When Laure first passes him in the hotel, he wears a wedding ring. On the plane, he no longer wears it. This would fit a dream where he is now re-imagined as a single man.

However, after Laure drowns and returns to the pastoral house, we have Laure say the following to Lily, trying to get her to continue living:

LAURE
But if you don’t end it here and you get your ass on that plane to America your future will be sitting right next to you. His name is Bruce and he’s a really good guy and he’s gonna look into your eyes and he’s gonna fall in love.

Watts, outside Laure’s dream, is still single in this future. And, of course, after he meets Lily they are married:

JOHNNY
You know who Bruce Hewitt Watts is?

BARDO
The new American ambassador?

JOHNNY
Bingo. He’s got this wife and three kids but no one seems to have a picture of them.

There is this other point that sticks out in the middle of the movie. Bardo tells Laure about his photo collages:

BARDO
But…there is a square here in Paris full of coffee shops, beautiful, and there is one in particular in a corner, you know, with these light reflections and I saw something that changed my life…

LAURE
It’s a great story, Nicolas.

BARDO
This is the best part!

LAURE
I know. I know. Maybe another time.

We are never told at this juncture what it is that changed Bardo’s life. There is nothing in Bardo’s collage from the middle sequence that shows it, it’s simply the square, almost entirely absent of people, with an overcast sky. We can, however, guess at what he might see that had such an extraordinary effect on him – the image of Laure, in front of the truck reflecting the light, that becomes the center of his collage, but, of course, only in the future.

So, there’s another possibility. That the movie is about the eternal return, the idea of characters and events playing out in infinite variations, the various events in time not one after the other, but actually alongside each other.

I make a quick crib of the idea of the eternal return from Borges’ essay, “Theory of Cycles”:

[The doctrine of cycles] (whose most recent inventor called it the doctrine of the Eternal Return) may be formulatd in the following manner:

The number of all the atoms that compose the world is immense but finite, and as such only capable of a finite (though also immense) number of permutations. In an infinite stretch of time, the number of possible permutations must be run through, and the universe has to repeat itself. Once again you will be born from a belly, once again your skeleton will grow, once again this same page will reach your identical hands, once again you will follow the course of all the hours of your life until that of your incredible death.

Such is the customary order of this argument, from its insipid preliminaries to its enormous and threatening outcome. It is commonly attributed to Nietzsche.

The most well-known variation of this might be Groundhog Day, though it is a variation where the person experiencing the Return is conscious of all past events, and finds the recurrence to be a prison. Here, the characters may only have a vague memory of other lives, a “deja vu”, just like the movie that Laure appears to star in, “Deja Vue”. When Laure turns back and looks at Watts, it is because of this remembrance of having been this man’s wife in another life. The compulsion that causes Bardo to take picture after picture of the square arises from something he remembers from the past, but which he experiences again at the end of the movie.

A clue to the way time exists for the characters in the movie is in the final collage, where the truck reflects the light while by Laure, yet the truck is also in the photo where it is involved in the accident, a few feet from Laure, and at another point, again a few feet distance, Laure receives her passport from Veronica, though this took place years before the other events. Another clue is in the child’s room, where we have a collage of her house, and below, a collage of her at various ages. The photos are of the child at various ages, side by side, just as the photos of her house, taken at various times, lie next to each other.

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

The characters in the movie are constantly trying to evaluate what will take place through the evidence visible to them. An attempt could be made to deduce the organization of the story of Femme Fatale, but it would fail, since the organization is left ambiguous enough that it remains at the level of the mystic, like the foresight talked about by the TV psychic at Lily’s house.

The archetypes here have been seen in movie after movie, involved in similar actions, voyeurism, theft, blackmail, betrayal, again and again. They have also been in this movie, again and again, variations on a theme, just like Ravel’s Bolero.

THE ONLY THING MISSING IS THE WOMAN

SERRA
What happened, Mr. Bardo was a car belonging to Ambassador Watts was found in your possession.

BARDO
I know, I know that…

SERRA
On the front seat was a gun, bullets, blouse and dress. The only thing missing is the woman.

The Femme Fatale first shows as a transparent, shadowy image projected on the TV screen. She is someone on whom others project an idea, what they wish to believe. Some fault Rebecca Romijn’s french accent as not credible for a french speaker; it should not be credible, because it is not her accent that causes someone like Watts to believe that she’s french, but her beauty.

On the plane, when she meets Watts she is pretending to be the Good Daughter. The Femme Fatale’s chief trait is deception; she plays a few other roles.

She is a princess, living in a castle.

ambassaor's residence

A woman in trouble (here, her reflection also falls on the movie poster of herself drowning).

poster for Deja Vue

The Marilyn Monroesque child-woman unaware of the power of her own sexuality.

Femme Fatale in her underwear

In the middle section, Bardo never connects with her as a woman. She is first an image to be captured, then a figure to be spied on, a tragic figure to be saved. He does not notice, or does not care, how little what he says is of interest to her. This inability to connect is not heroic, and might even be considered by the movie’s author as anti-heroic. This is shown in the most obvious way in the movie’s dress codes, which I believe are the traditional black and white to mark its heroes and villains.

Black Tie and Racine, for instance,

Black Tie and Racine

During the heist, Laure’s in black,

Laure at heist

When she returns to France and must persuade Bardo that she’s being driven to suicide by her husband’s beatings, she tries to disguise her nature, and dresses in white,

Femme Fatale in white

When it’s revealed that she’s behind the hostage plot, she goes back to black. Bardo, however, is not a hero. He might be a proxy for the audience, but for almost the entire movie, he dresses in black as well:

Femme Fatale and Bardo in black clothes

When Laure does her strip tease, both Napoleon and Bardo are voyeurs. First, Napoleon forces himself on Laure, then Bardo. Bardo has sex with equal contempt for Laure as Napoleon might have. Napoleon, however, serves as the scapegoat for this, first as voyeur (though Bardo looks on as well),

Bardo as voyeur

then for the assault,

Napoleon assaults the Femme Fatale

which allows Bardo to play the role of hero, though he then does the same thing Napoleon was about to:

Bardo assaults Femme Fatale

The only thing missing, underneath it all, is the woman. The men project onto her images they want to believe of her, yet the veil never falls of what’s beneath, though in this case it cannot fall – she is this archetype, and there cannot be anything underneath, only the illusion that there is something underneath, a mystery finally revealed to the right man.

The mystery may be simpler and more obvious; that this is a woman not attracted to men. Her sexual intimacy with Veronica seems very sincere, as intimate as anything she does with the men later. There is a quick shot of friendly intimacy between the two I never see in the movie between Laure and any man.

Laure and Veronica

The movie at the beginning is Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who always had a strongly hinted attraction to other women, without ever being fully out*. If we can speak of symbols linking characters, we have the hats of both Veronica and Laure bent in the very same way:

Femme Fatale with bent hat

Veronica with bent hat

That “bent” is sometimes slang for someone attracted to their own sex I leave out there, though make no definite conclusions.

From some of the last lines between the women:

LAURE
Not bad for a night’s work, huh?

VERONICA
You call that work?

Her dialogue with Bardo during the seduction scene is entirely unsubtle, without the possibility of attraction between a man and a woman, simple flattery of a man who is childish and she is not interested in any way,

BARDO
Are you flirting?

LAURE
Was I?

BARDO
I believe so, yeah.

LAURE
I didn’t mean to…

LAURE
It’s just that all your boyhood stories make you so damn lovable.

She passes off Watts to Lily without any regret. If he is such a good guy, you would think there would be at least the sense of sacrifice, that she is losing the possibility of a good man in her own life, but there is nothing of the kind.

That there are these cues of the Femme Fatale’s sexual orientation which are ignored, might be echoed in the scene in the bar at the bridge. It is a bar entirely filled with men, and only men, with the exception of Laure, with all the men dressed in leather.

Femme Fatale at leather bar

This, one would think, is almost a stereotypical gay bar. Yet despite the appearances, it is assumed that all the men want to have sex with this woman. This may be an unintended effect, but I don’t believe it is.

After falling from the bridge, the Femme Fatale is naked, though not the sensual nudity that a man might want, but almost a return to a pure state. She is outside her costume, in effect, outside her archetype. It is after this point that she helps Lily, and their lives diverge again.

Femme Fatale underwater

The movie ends now with the deaths of Racine and Black Tie, rather than Laure being drowned. A note on scapegoats from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is appropriate,

The fact that we are now in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos [scapegoat] and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic [realistic tradition], in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated. If it were really inevitable, we should have tragic irony, as in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov’s crime is so interwoven with his character that there can be no question of any “whodunit” mystery. In the growing brutality of the crime story (a brutality protected by the convention of the form, as it is conventionally impossible that the man-hunter can be mistaken in believing that one of his suspects is a murderer), detection begins to merge with the thriller as one of the forms of melodrama. In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

I don’t think we can speak of Black Tie or Racine as bad in the way of Raskolnikov; Raskolnikov must choose to commit evil. The Femme Fatale, Black Tie, Racine are archetypes conceived to only perform evil.

Racine and Black Tie are skewered in public,

Black Tie and Racine dead

an elaborate, exhibitionist death which suggests sacrifice, just as throwing a woman to the waters suggests a sacrifice, a ritual sacrifice for sin. That these men are killed does not, I think, imply a more just or karmic moral order than if a double crossing woman who kills two men is in turn killed by her old crime partners – it would not be difficult to conceive of a movie ending that way, and there may well be movies that end such a way. That the characters who die are stand-ins for racial or gender types that the audience wishes to see hurt or humiliated, is an obvious point, but one that I won’t go into here.

The last question is whether, by movie’s end, Laure is still the Femme Fatale archetype. In terms of the color codes just mentioned, she now dresses in white. Bardo, for the first time in the movie, now dresses in white, rather than black,

Bardo in white on balcony

When seeing the accident, she places her hand to her mouth in shock, a gesture she never makes before, a gesture of an innocent rather than a hardened criminal. It is a gesture that Lily makes as well.

Lily hand over mouth

Femme Fatale hand over mouth

Laure wears white with some dirt on it – the slightly soiled virgin.

Femme Fatale and Bardo

A hint that this is just another pose is the bra that lies underneath the clothes – it’s black. Another might be the last shot, where Bardo remains in frame, a look of puzzlement, while she is already off-screen, the space next to Bardo empty except for the distant background. Bardo remains the patsy. The woman is missing again.

Bardo confused

The final dialogue:

BARDO
You look so familiar. Haven’t we met before somewhere?

THE FEMME FATALE
Only in my dreams.

Bardo’s line, however stale, is truly meant – he has seen her before, in the sequences he’s been in, again and again. Her line, I believe, is ironic. The images we have seen of her, are not her own dreams, but dreams of others where she plays an intended role. That she now be a redeemed innocent, though a gorgeous one, who can now fall in love with a man, is another role asked of her, not one she asks for. The movie ends with some melancholy piano that resolves itself into Ravel’s “Bolero”.


* An interview late in her life for the book Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh gives some insight on this. The interview itself is fitting for this movie and this post, as it itself has the dramatic quality of a film noir.

[Boze Hadleigh]: Since you mention it…There’s a list – I did not compile it – that came out in 1981 in a paper called the Hollywood Star, of seventy bisexual Hollywood actresses.
[Barbara Stanwyck]: [Slowly.] I never saw it.
BH: If you wanted to see it, I have the half page with the headline, and the full page, from inside, with the list of seventy.
BS: You may show it to me. [I do, she unfolds the headline, then the full page list; the name on the top left is Barbara Stanwyck, but I don't dare congratulate her on her top billing. She studies the list, eyes opening wider a few times, then hands it back to me impassively.]
BH: This followed a list they’d published of bisexual actors. Did you see on the top right? It says, “Although many of the listed actresses prefer both men and women, it has no bearing on their talent as actresses.”
BS: [Pause.] It’s a star studded list, isn’t it?
BH: Not in alphabetical order…
BS: [Sharply.] I’d like you to give me the list. You don’t mind [reaches for it; I yield it up].

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM.

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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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