Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale is his best work since Blow Out. That’s really saying something because I really like Blow Out. This movie has everything. It’s got the classic De Palma style, Hitchcock references, insane erotica, hilarious melodrama, daring heists, and a fantastically intricate plot that weaves all this together ingeniously. The ending might drive some people a little mad, but I thought it stunningly brilliant.
Basically, and I say that lightly because nothing is basic about this movie, the film revolves around the scheming double-crossing character of Laure (Rebecca Romjin) as she deceives everyone across multiple continents and absconds with millions. It starts off with an elaborate diamond heist, where she ridiculously serves as a decoy, engaging the target, a famous film director’s wife bedazzled with the most absurd top you’ve ever seen. In fact, the top she wears, a golden snake studded with millions worth of diamonds, is the target of the heist.
Of course she double crosses her allies and makes off with the treasure for herself. She is mistaken for her doppelganger (referencing Hitchock’s Vertigo), a missing woman named Lili who recently lost her husband and young child. Lili’s parents take her back to their home, where she draws a bath. Suddenly Lili reappears at home. Unaware of Laure’s presence she commits suicide in a fit of depression. Laure sees this as an opportunity and disappears with Lili’s passport and a plane ticket to America. She meets a man on the plane, marries him, and returns to Paris when he becomes the French ambassador. Yet danger lurks for her in France as her accomplices of old have begun to seek out their revenge, who learn of her reappearance due to a photograph taken by one Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas).
What follows are an intricate set of events where she deceives, lies, strips, and shoots her way to a ten million dollar payoff. I don’t want to get too deep into all she does while in France because that would end up being the whole write-up, but needless to say she is well deserving of the title femme fatale. My favorite scene in the film involves a strip tease in a bar cellar where De Palma really indulges in his meticulous yet opulent directorial style that he’s known so well for. It ends in a fight between Bardo and another patron of which we see only the shadows while the camera dollies in on Laure, laughing at the artfulness of her devious machinations.
The film is an absolute tour de force of Brian De Palma, the perfect kind of material for his style. He utilizes every trick in the book. This is probably his best use of his trademark split screen, where the split ends with a dual shot of the same view, one of the actual square and another of Bardo’s recreation of the square made of hundreds of individual snapshots. It’s absolutely sensational.
Rebecca Romjin is also great in her role. You can read the cunning in her eyes so well, and the sensuality she brings to the picture is positively incredible. You couldn’t have asked for a better performance, especially in the aforementioned strip tease sequence.
The ending is pretty incredible as well. Upon being dunked into the river Laure wakes up back in the bathtub at her doppelganger’s house seven years earlier. It is easy to see how this kind of “it was all a dream” twist in the story would drive some insane, but I found it refreshing, especially when considering the scenes that happen afterwards. Of course Laure doesn’t allow Lili to kill herself, and through that act sets the wheels of fate in a totally different direction. We see a sequence from earlier played out again, but with slightly different details that change the entire event. Due to Laure’s brief act of altruism, a deviation from her usual Machiavellian selfishness, she was able to make her life into something far better and more genuine, and save multiple lives in the process. De Palma allowed Laure a second chance and a happy ending, a kindness rarely if ever offered to his characters.
All in all this is definitely one of De Palma’s greatest works, a film extraordinarily grand in scope of plot. The plot is intircate, but not unfollowable (Mission: Impossible I’m looking at you) and his direction is impeccable as usual. Its got everything a De Palma fan could want: sex, crime, violence, and a twist beautifully hinted at in subtle ways that turns the entire work on its head. This may be his masterpiece.