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




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

Femme Fatale: with and without rings.

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is that he is wearing a wedding ring. He is married. On the plane, he is ringless.

The second:

Femme Fatale turns around

Femme Fatale keeps walking

Femme Fatale turns around again

Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale - she has seen this man before - but where? - URL if gif doesn't load:

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

Femme Fatale: looking up, looking down.

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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.

Femme Fatale: rain against the window.

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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

Femme Fatale: That dress. Blech.

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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

Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale - Bardo and the Femme Fatale as voyeurs - URL if gif doesn't load:

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:

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:

You know who Bruce Hewitt Watts is?

The new American ambassador?

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:

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…

It’s a great story, Nicolas.

This is the best part!

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 formulated 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 married to this man 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. Side by side in the collage are the photos of the child at various ages, 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.


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

I know, I know that…

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:

Not bad for a night’s work, huh?

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,

Are you flirting?

Was I?

I believe so, yeah.

I didn’t mean to…

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

Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale - hand going to mouth - URL if gif doesn't load:

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:

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

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].


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

On April 27, 2015, some tweaking was done to improve this post’s readability, and some gifs were added to supplement some explanations. On May 10, 2015, the split screen comparison gifs were added. On May 11, 2015, the split screen gif of Bardo and the Femme Fatale as voyeurs was added.

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