Brian De Palma‘s Femme Fatale is a rogue-female-empowerment fantasy as exhilarating as Angela Carter’s ”The Company of Wolves“ (the story, not Neil Jordan‘s movie). Never read it? Sorry, but it’s still slim pickings in the female-empowerment department, and I‘m hard-pressed for a more populist analogy.
De Palma’s best movie since Carrie is also an allegory about its own making, specifically about a filmmaker learning that you bring trouble on yourself when you try to be someone you‘re not. De Palma had to put an ocean between himself and Hollywood — Femme Fatale was conceived in Paris, where De Palma has lived for more than two years — to rediscover his talent and his joy in directing movies.
”In the 40 years I’ve been making movies,“ he says, ”something catastrophic has happened about every 10 years. I don‘t know exactly what goes wrong, but wherever I am seems not the place to be. So I basically pick myself up and go somewhere else.“
It’s September, once the most pleasurable month to be in New York, now shadowed by 911, which just happens to be De Palma‘s birthday. For the moment, he’s back in the apartment he bought in the early 1980s (Greenwich Village, cozy duplex, pre-war bldg, high-fl, great view). Except that his beard and hair are now totally gray and his back twinges when he gets up from his chair, De Palma seems not to have aged much in the past two decades. The first thing you notice about him is his gaze, which is both alert and impassive — like a cat‘s gaze, and like a cat, he gathers information through his eyes.
”It was February 28, 2000, two weeks before Mission to Mars opened. My brother was here with me, and I said, ’You and I are either going to get in a car and take a sentimental trip across the country and visit all the people we haven‘t seen in years, or I’m going to get on a plane to Paris.‘ Then I literally flipped a coin, and it came up Paris. I got on a plane and was there the next morning.“
In Paris, De Palma hung out with old friends, explored the city on foot and on his motor scooter, and looked at movies. Paris is still a cineaste’s paradise — there‘s a film festival almost every week. It’s also a city that welcomes eccentricity, and De Palma — in his work and his being –is ever the world-class eccentric. (Consider the image of the 60-ish Brian De Palma in his safari jacket on a motor scooter.) And ever the fool for beauty. (”There‘s nothing more beautiful than Paris,“ Chris Marker once said, ”except the memory of it.“)
After a few weeks of living the life of a flaneur, De Palma got an idea for a movie about a double-crossing femme fatale who’s involved in a big heist. She runs off with the money and the jewels and, to avoid her pursuers, tries on a change of identity. He began to think of Belleville, the hip, heterogeneous neighborhood that reminded him of bohemian Greenwich Village circa 1960, as a major location.
”You don‘t have that wealth thing in Paris that changes everything for artists,“ he says, ”that sends them into the superstratosphere.“ De Palma enjoys living well, and he knows how to cut a deal (Femme Fatale cost $30 million, and the director’s fee was likely around $5 million), but the slander going around some European film circles that he did it strictly for the money is absurd. Not only is Femme Fatale one of the director‘s most personal films, it’s also among the most intricately and painstakingly constructed. Had De Palma been in it for the money, he would have delivered a straight-ahead heist movie that could have earned him big back-end bucks, not an art-and-exploitation ballet that snakes around like Ravel‘s Bolero and revels in deja vu. (The opening caper is, in fact, scored to Bolero.) The narrative has a surprise twist that I feel obliged not to give away, which is a pity because De Palma’s description of how he hid the clues in plain sight reveals the skill and subtlety of his filmmaking:
”It‘s a hard thing to pull off, because no matter what you do, some people will resent being tricked. But others will want to go back again to make all these connections they didn’t see before. For me, the film works on such an interesting subconscious level that I still keep seeing connections I never consciously mapped out. People think I get these ideas from other movies or from books, but really, they‘re things that happen to me. The opening heist scene in Femme Fatale was originally going to take place on a casino boat, but they don’t have casino boats in Europe. Then Mission to Mars was shown in Cannes [in May 2000], and I walked up the red carpet with my girlfriend, and we were surrounded by these bodyguards because she was wearing all this borrowed jewelry and the store sends a bodyguard for every half-million dollars‘ worth. So that’s how the idea of shooting the heist right there in the Palais happened.“
Meanwhile, one of De Palma‘s friends had given a draft of Femme Fatale to her friend, producer Marina Gefter, who in turn gave it to producer-financer Tarak Ben Ammar. In practically no time, they had decided to do the film. ”I made a lot of independent movies when I was starting out,“ says the director, ”but I had never gone to Europe and financed a movie outside the system before. So I approached it like an improvisation, and there I was in Cannes and they a were already starting to sell territories.“
Many months later, Antonio Banderas had agreed to play the secondary role of the paparazzo turned digital-art photographer, mostly because his wife, Melanie Griffith, convinced him it would be good for him — as it had been for her, in Body Double — to work with De Palma. With an actor who’s bankable in Europe onboard, De Palma was free to cast an unknown as the femme fatale. ”My philosophy of the new girl,“ he explains, without a trace of embarrassment, ”is that you can be with the most beautiful girl in the world and a new girl walks in and your eye goes over to the new girl. The new girl always works.“ When Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — who happens to be both a new girl and, arguably, the most beautiful woman in the world — came to audition, people held their breath, hoping she could act. ”I wasn‘t sure,“ confesses De Palma. ”There’s no denying Rebecca‘s physical presence, but she has to carry the movie, playing what are basically four different parts. But my two producers were convinced, so I said, ’Okay, let‘s roll the dice’ — very much like we cast Kevin Costner in The Untouchables — and she worked out sensationally.“ It‘s worth mentioning that in addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, admirably self-possessed, and pulling off a striptease so hot it makes Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse seem like 1940s Campfire Girls, Romijn-Stamos channels Kim Novak in Vertigo with rare good humor. Femme Fatale is De Palma’s first film in which the central female character is not a victim. And unlike the telekinetic heroine of Carrie, this femme fatale enjoys her power.
Pressed to define the difference between working in Europe and working within the Hollywood system, De Palma says, ”In Europe, they think of the director as a god, so there are no preview screenings. That‘s the crucial difference. I’ve always felt the movies I‘ve changed because of various opinions after preview screenings were not improved, and the movies I never changed are the movies I feel most at peace with. The preview situation has deeply affected American cinema. You’ve got Marty Scorsese in a mall in New Jersey previewing Gangs of New York. I‘ll never forget when I had dinner with Bertolucci and they were previewing his movie in a mall in New Jersey. That’s the American movie system.“
Then he adds, ”No studio would have made Femme Fatale. It‘s too surreal for them.“ When De Palma says ”too surreal,“ he probably means too Vertigo-like. De Palma saw Hitchcock’s masterpiece when he was 18, and he‘s still in its grip — still so obsessed by it that when he uses it as a source it must feel to him like he’s taking something from his own life rather than from a film. But while Femme Fatale may be De Palma‘s most elegant reworking of the material, it’s not the only great Vertigo film of recent years. David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive, I suggest, is another (and, like De Palma, Lynch needed European financing to get it made). The movie opened in Europe while De Palma was in production with Femme Fatale. ”I didn’t see it until about nine months ago,“ he says. ”I was knocked out by it, amazed that we were covering so much of the same material. But Mulholland Drive‘s whole use of subconscious dream stuff — the whole film, in other words — is extremely complex in relation to mine.“
De Palma is not always so generous. He’s appalled that so many action directors have no idea how to construct a coherent visual space. David Fincher and James Cameron meet his standards, but he walked out during the action sequences in Pearl Harbor. Still, he goes to movies all the time. He is just back from showing Femme Fatale at the Toronto Film Festival, where he haunted theaters for the entire 10 days and saw everything. Right now, De Palma is keenly interested in Korean films. ”They‘re very violent, very sexual. You see these two [Korean] cultures smashing into each other.“ He’s thinking about making a movie in Korea, that is, after he goes to Rome to shoot his next.
And yet, despite his interest in the work of other filmmakers, De Palma feels that he‘s practically out there alone doing what he calls ”visual storytelling.“ ”I believe that where the camera is, is as important as what you’re photographing. But in 99 percent of movies, the camera isn‘t doing anything. It isn’t reflecting on what‘s going on, it’s just recording. Which to me is the lowest form of directing. People always accuse me of not having characters or emotions in my films. But when you‘re shooting an emotional scene between two characters, it should be just two-shots and close-ups. And I don’t want to do that.“
De Palma has talked about this conundrum since he began directing. And he always hauls out David Lean as the example of a director who balanced strong visual sequences with character development. But today, he doesn‘t leave it at that: ”I think that because visual sequences connect with audiences more strongly than anything else, they will always overwhelm the dramatic material. You’re exhilarated by the visual storytelling, and then the characters start talking about who they are and it‘s a letdown. That’s the problem as I think about it now.“
If De Palma hasn‘t solved the problem in Femme Fatale, he has created, for the first time, a female character worth rooting for. Maybe having two daughters (now ages 6 and 11) has given him a different perspective on female agency. Or maybe, as Julie Salamon, the author of The Devil’s Candy, believes, his outlook is less bleak now that he‘s less dependent on the studios. For her book, De Palma allowed Salamon unguarded access to the making of his disastrous Bonfire of the Vanities, even though he knew her book could make life difficult for him in Hollywood — and it did.
”Life has always been such a struggle for Brian,“ says Salamon. ”It’s been this weird balancing act — trying to be in the industry, but not of it. He has a unique vision, his sensibility is not mass-market, and those expectations have always been a burden on him, especially because every time out he wants to do things no one has done before.“
The least one can say about Femme Fatale is that it‘s a deliriously beautiful movie and, definitely, no one — not even Brian De Palma — has done anything quite like it before.