Two decades have passed since De Palma's apotheosis by Pauline Kael and other critics, but the director's work has waned in significance. From Carrie through Blow Out, De Palma deserved his accolades. But then came Scarface, which was greeted with derision, and Body Double, which was dismissed with a mixture of sneers and yawns. Since then his work has been hit and miss. The hits included The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible and should have included Casualties of War and Carlito's Way. The misses have ranged from Bonfire of the Vanities to Mission to Mars. Now comes Femme Fatale, with its self-conscious quotes from Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo. But in lieu of Hitch's ironclad storyline, we get a plot out of 1980s TV.
Femme Fatale is the story of big, taut blonde Laure Ash (Victoria's Secret model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Laure is a bad, bad girl, as she says about herself, "bad to the bone." Think Gina Gershon in Showgirls and Bound, not just bad but proud of it.
The flick kicks off with a kinky heist. For reasons never explored, though in De Palma's films bare skin is its own excuse, a comely brunette (Rie Rasmussen) shows up at a Cannes Film Festival premier wearing jewel-encrusted wires where a more discreet woman might opt for a blouse. Then, as almost always happens with a woman oblivious that her nipples are showing, the model needs to visit the ladies room. Or that's what she claims, anyway. Actually, she's headed to the can for a lesbian assignation with Laure who is pretending to be a photographer even though she's an international jewel thief. Oh, and did I mention double-crossing bitch?
Kiss, kiss, squeeze, squeeze, grope, grope: the most ludicrous robbery plan in the history of the movies. Pressing the model against the translucent walls of the world's largest and cleanest toilet stall, Laure takes off her prey's jewel-encrusted wires and drops them on the floor, while her scowling and mysteriously unseen black accomplice squats inches away and exchanges the real jewel-encrusted wires for wires encrusted with cut glass. I know you think I must be making this up, but I'm not. And I know something else, too: Everybody's going to want such wires for themselves or their wives or girlfriends.
Cut to Paris sometime later. Laure has dark hair and people mistake her for a grieving widow. High dive from a balcony in a hotel atrium, and, well, being a grieving widow might be a superior alternative to getting caught by various double-crossees. Know that seat on the plane to America? Isn't it next to rich eligible bachelor Bruce Watts (Peter Coyote)? Do we doubt for a minute that wedding bells are gonna ring?
Alas, seven years later, along about 2008, darn if Bruce hasn't been appointed ambassador to France and double darn if that annoying paparazzo Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), who is always hanging around on that Parisian balcony, doesn't snap her photo. Double-crossees will be along with blood in their eyes within moments. Gotta make plans. Bad, bad plans.
Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated with forbidding blondes: Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Kim Novak in Vertigo, Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie. De Palma aped the master with Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface and Hedren's daughter Melanie Griffith in Body Double. He has chosen well with Romijn-Stamos, who is afraid neither to shake her booty nor kick our butts. She's the reason to see this film, and De Palma knows it. She's way better than Novak or Hedren ever hoped to be. And she yanks the rug out from under us with the same disdain Lucy shows when she snatches away Charlie Brown's football. Mistreat me, mistress, the easily dominated among us will think.
But Femme Fatale falls short of Hitchcock's classics in the script department. The film's reversals can be defended in that visual clues warn us that something just ain't right. Still, even when we see it coming, the final big plot twist feels like a cheat. Even at the height of his career De Palma displayed a coarseness that made me uneasy, though I admired those earlier films almost as much as anybody. But buried in his superb photographic artistry there seems an unbecoming ambivalence about, even hostility toward, women. On the flip side, in Romijn-Stamos he's selected a protagonist who can take care of herself, thank you very much.