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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Femme Fatale"


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"Femme Fatale" is Brian De Palma's latest foray into the challenging, but artful world of contemporary film noir. The genre is not new to De Palma's repertoire, but this one was a particularly difficult undertaking, due to its complex mix of cinematography, genre interplays, character profiles, and plot development. I have extremely mixed feelings about this film because where it succeeds, it does so extraordinarily well, but it's failings are too important to the overall film to go unchecked. I felt more saddened that De Palma, who wrote and directed it, didn't just choose less loftier goals and come out with a much stronger piece.

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The plot revolves around an alluring seductress, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who leads a life of crime, but leaves it abruptly and unintentionally when circumstances give her a new lease on life as a respectable married woman. All's well, till her identity is revealed when a two-bit paparazzi, played by Antonio Banderas, brings her past and present together again, making for an explosive interplay of human character and dramatic plot twists.

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I confess that the above plotline is grossly oversimplified, but I stop short of apologizing for it, because the plot itself is the least important aspect of "Femme Fatale." Logistics are loose at best, but as the final scenes play out, the plot seems relatively unimportant compared to the much stronger elements of the film. The movie blends other movie styles, ranging from French independent films' use of European female personas and erotic sensuality, to American cult genres, such as Pulp Fiction or Twin Peaks, with its use of musical counterpoint. There are intensely mature scenes involving more explicit sexual innuendo, as well as sophisticated cinematic photography that plays with color, shadow and texture in a high-gloss production environment, providing a richer aesthetic than what most indpendent films can afford. In fact, so much of the production involved acute intimate attention to this stylistic detail, it carries the film. Most well-versed film-goers are sure to appreciate and relish in the varied themes presented here.

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The characters in the film are compelling, although two-dimensional, through and through. At first, I considered this a weak point, but when the filmmaker's intentions of style and mood became more clear, I reluctantly acknowledged that stronger characters would have drawn the focus away from the film's more abstract aesthetic qualities. Noire films are often more about style than plot, and the characters are often frustratingly under-explained, not that I necessarily support this aspect of this otherwise fine genre. It's the "contemporary" part that adds the additional dimension of abstraction that demands less from the characters than what we think we want to see. This odd paradox is exactly why I felt the plot was too strong, despite its logistical problems. Had the sequence of events been even less important, I would have found it much easier to bathe in the visual, audible and other aesthetic qualities of the movie.

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To that end, "Femme Fatale" is clearly form over substance, which may not appeal to the more casual viewer looking for something reminiscent of previous De Palma mainstream blockbusters, such as "Mission: Impossible." This film cannot be critiqued with a simple view, and I wish I had hours more to discuss its more intricate nuances, but even still, to recommend for or against seeing it is something I find more difficult than reviewing it.

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