The University of Pennsylvania
2012-2013 spring semester
Queer and Feminist Film Studies（GSWS 322-401）
Teacher: Dr. Cathy Hannabach
Student: Kai Chun, LEE
The Construction of Femme Fatale
– Case Study of the film Femme Fatale (2002)
Before the World War II, as stated by Alfonso, history has either completely dismissed female contributions and participations in public sphere or relegated their involvement to scandalous supporting roles and services such as prostitutes (Alfonso, p.59). But women got more attention and power during and after the second-wave feminism. Femme fatale, a special kind of new women, was constructed by feminists as a theoretical icon, instance or figure at that time.
When second-wave feminist critics turned their attention to film and popular culture in the 1970s, Hanson describes that there was a vigorous sense of an important and political critical language being forged (Hanson, p.215). As the Hollywood studio system was considered to be a male-dominated mode of production churning out narratives that ideologically reproduced women’s cultural oppression, the primary and urgent project of the feminists was to evolve feminist interpretative strategies that could locate and interrogate women’s place in that cinema (Hanson, p.215). Thus, femme fatale was used as a means to react to this strong patriarchic filming system.
In this sense, femme fatale became significant to be scrutinized on how this female icon was used to fight against the male-dominated world. Thus, this paper aims at picking up one of the most representative and typical films with the theme of femme fatale as a case study to analyze and draw a conclusion upon how it constructed femme fatale to react to the male-dominated ideology in cinema.
The film to be studied in this paper is FEMME FATALE (2002), a French mystery film directed by Brian De Palma and performed by film stars Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas. The reasons for choosing FEMME FATALE is multiple. Its storyline explicitly concerning the theme of femme fatale means an abundant source for studying the construction of femme fatale. Also, the director Brian De Palma is famous in producing thrilling films with the theme of femme fatale while the female main character Rebecca Romijn is renowned for her another femme fatale character, Mystique in X-MEN. Thus, this film, FEMME FATALE, simultaneously possesses the most abundant source, best director and sophisticated actors in constructing femme fatale. This paper therefore focuses on this film to study its construction of femme fatale.
Sexuality of Femme Fatale
Femme fatale is well-known in playing with her sexuality, especially against men to achieve her goal. Her goal is often associated with crimes, for example, killing men without compunction to confound societal stereotypes of women as passive selfless and material. As femme fatale is so attractive under the male gaze and often involves criminality, she, apart from her academic name “fatal women”, is also considered to be “dangerous women”, “seductive sinners” and “vicious vixens” (Campbell, pp.4-5)
In FEMME FATALE, the female protagonist, Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), was beautiful in the eyes of the men. With regards to her outlook, she wears attractive make-up and different kinds of beautiful dresses throughout the film. In the inaugural scene, she is even naked, lying on the bed (see picture 1).
Picture 1: Laure being naked lies on the bed.
Laure’s sexuality keeps changing throughout the story by performing various emotions. Sometimes she seems cunning, thinking a lot in her mind (see picture 2); sometimes she pretends to be pitiful, begging for men’s sympathy (see picture 3); sometimes she seems sinister and malicious with a wicked smile (see pictures 4 and 5).
Pictures 2 and 3: Sometimes Laure seems cunning, thinking a lot in her mind; sometimes she pretends to be pitiful, begging for men’s sympathy.
Pictures 4 and 5: sometimes she seems sinister and malicious with a wicked smile.
As femme fatale is a theoretical icon to react to the male-dominant world, she is depicted to be born out of the hero’s conflicting desires and it is she who wields power over men (Hayward, pp.90-91). For fooling with and controlling men, femme fatale equips herself with a stronger femininity. Gardiner suggests that it be “female masculinity” (Gardiner, pp.631-632). In contrast, men who are threatened by her “female masculinity” will become seemingly more vulnerable, especially unable to resist the lure of their feminine wiles.
In FEMME FATALE, Laure flirts with several men in different occasions to get control over them. The first man who she flirt with is the American Ambassador Bruce Watts (Peter Coyote). She pretends to lean against him accidentally (see picture 6). She, as an American, even pretends to be French who know nothing about America and talks to Watts that “America is a ‘countly’ ‘vely’ big, no?” with French accent (see picture 7). She intentionally talks without correct grammar and pronounce all the “R” sound as “L”. This makes her, considered to be French by Watts, seem more vulnerable in the American context. Thus, this is the reason why the American Ambassador is attracted by her and wants to protect her. In this way, as expected by Laure, Watts is falling into her trap.
Pictures 6 and 7: She pretends to lean against him accidentally and be French who know nothing about America speaking English with French accent.
Not only does she become the threat to men’s masculinity, like Bruce Watts, she also gains the control over men. Consider the male protagonist, Bardo (Antonio Banderas) in the film. Laure uses her sexuality to attract him. He becomes particularly vulnerable and later totally under Laure’s control. In one of the scenes, Laure pretends to be not feeling well, and thus requiring taking a bath. However, she takes off her clothes in front of Bardo (see picture 8). In fact, she is intentionally seducing Bardo. This really arouses Bardo’s sexual desire. After having sex, Bardo is satisfied and trusts Laure because he starts to fall in love with her.
Picture 8: Laure takes off her clothes in front of Bardo to intentionally seduce him.
However, Laure is actually making use of him. She then pretends greatly suffering from asthma but she does not have enough medicine. As Bardo trusts her very much, he drives a car to the pharmacy to buy the inhaler for her. However, Laure leaves her underwear, a gun and bullets in the car which belongs to the American Ambassador. She then calls the police while Bardo is on his way to pharmacy, claiming that Bardo is a kidnapper. The police firmly believe Bardo kidnaps Laure, the American Ambassador’s wife, as the car belongs to the American Ambassador and it contains weapons and most importantly, Laure’s underwear.
We can see that Laure has used her sexuality to successfully set Bardo up. As Bardo is lured, he becomes so vulnerable that he cannot resist anything from Laure. The only path for him is to be under Laure’s control. This greatly shows the fatal power of femme fatale.
Especially in an extended twist ending, the entirety of the movie’s events is revealed to be a dream of Laure. But after Laure wakes up, everything seems the same as the dream. However, this time Laure chooses not to use another identity. She decides not to hide anymore. Seven years later, Laure and Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), who is revealed to have been Laure’s partner all along, chat about the success of their diamond caper. Black Tie (Eriq Ebouaney) and Racine (Édouard Montrouge) arrive seeking revenge because Laure double crossed them. However, they are killed by the same truck that killed Veronica in Laure’s dream. Bardo, witnessing all these events, introduces himself to Laure, swearing that he has met her before, with Laure replying “Only in my dreams” (see picture 9 and 10).
Pictures 9 and 10: Bardo, witnessing all these events, introduces himself to Laure, swearing that he has met her before, with Laure replying “Only in my dreams”.
This ending, for one thing, shows the independence of Laure, portraying the strong femininity while fooling Bardo; and for another it suggests the success of femme fatale. In classic film noir, the femme fatale propelled the action, but her narrative options were numbered: she either died, reformed, or turned out not to be a femme fatale after all (Straayer, p.153). However, compared to the classic ending of femme fatale, that of FEMME FATALE tells us that the new femme fatale is not only limited to the aforementioned paths. In FEMME FATALE, Laure can fool with Bardo at last, choosing to get what she wants from the innermost part of her heart – freedom. This meticulously designed ending greatly shows the construction of the strong femininity of femme fatale.
Ambivalence and Ambiguity of Femme Fatale
Apart from playing with her sexuality, another major characteristic of femme fatale is her sense of ambivalence and ambiguity. Hanson suggests that ambivalent and ambiguous female characterizations recurred as film noir underwent a revival in the 1970s as well as the neo-noir in modern times (Hanson, p.222). To form the uncertainty of the film, Wallace Lee suggests that the homosexuality of femme fatale can increase the indeterminacy of sexuality (Lee, p.369) while Farrimond believes the bisexuality forming duplicity in the characterization of femme fatale makes her veiled and mysterious (Farrimond, pp.145-146).
Referring to the aforementioned sources, bisexuality is no exception in FEMME FATALE. Laure presents a sense of ambivalence and ambiguity by her bisexuality. Laure, as a femme fatale, chooses her partner whoever she wants. On the screen, Laure sometimes seemingly falls in love with the American Ambassador Watts, sometimes Bardo, but in the end Veronica. The audience will feel uncertain in Laure’s sexual orientation and may even ask whether Laure is straight or a lesbian. By forming this uncertainty, the sense of ambivalence and ambiguity is constructed and presented to the audience.
More importantly, the love triangles of the relationships among the characters in the film also construct ambivalence and ambiguity. With regards to love triangle, Hayward suggests that “Traditionally, the expectation would be that, in terms of camera focus, the femme fatale would occupy the apex of the triangle” (Hayward, p.93).
There is no exception for FEMME FATALE. Laure is always the apex of the love triangle. However, this is not exactly the traditional case. In FEMME FATALE, Laure not only involves in typically one love triangle, but two. At first, she is with the American Ambassador Watts but later she changes to be with Bardo. It seems to the Audience Laure is playing between these two men and does not have a plan to settle down on either of them. Meanwhile, another love triangle comes up at the latter part of the film. Laure seemingly loves both Veronica and Bardo. Patently, these two love triangles make their relationship more complicated and Laure more mysterious as she is playing with all her lovers for an unknown reason.
By using their complicated relationship and focusing Laure as the apex of the love triangles, the film focuses her as femme fatale and successfully constructs a great sense of ambivalence and ambiguity.
In construction of femme fatale, the film FEMME FATALE has adopted lots of specific techniques. In portraying the sexuality of femme fatale, the film first focuses on the outlook. It dresses up the femme fatale beautifully, increasing her attractiveness under the male gaze. Also, the sexuality of femme fatale is constructed by emotions. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, as a femme fatale, emotes different feelings through her facial expression, such as cunning, pity and evil. Apart from her facial expressions, her body language embodies her sexuality as well. Laure has seducing acts with the men like Watts and Bardo, which makes her more charming in the eyes of men. FEMME FATALE has constructed the sexuality by weakening the men. While comparing the male patronages with the femme fatale in the film, we can tell the men are much feminized. They become much more vulnerable under the strong feminism (or “female masculinity”). Consider Bardo and Watts in the film. They are both easy to be set up and under control. This relationship with men builds up the sexual power of femme fatale.
To portray the ambivalence and ambiguity of femme fatale, FEMME FATALE uses two techniques. The first one is to add bisexuality into the film. Being bisexual, like Laure, is certainly confusing to the audience in the context of the heterosexual and heteronormative world. Besides, this film adopts an atypical method of love triangles to construct the uncertainty of the film. Flirting with many men and women, Laure is unknown to the audience on who she will choose or what decision she will make. This really helps the construction of the ambivalence and ambiguity of femme fatale.
Thus, it can be concluded that the film – FEMME FATALE – successfully brings out the critical elements of femme fatale by means of the aforementioned 6 methods to construct the concept of femme fatale to react to the male-dominated ideology in cinema.
1. De Palma, Brian, Femme Fatale (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video 2002).
1. Campbell, Nerida, Femme Fatale: the female criminal (Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2008).
- Scholarly and peer-reviewed journals
1. Alfonso, Kristal L., “Femme Fatale 2010”, Air & Space Power Journal, Vol. 24 Issue 3 (Fall, 2010), pp.59-73.
2. Farrimond, Katherine, “‘Stay Still So We Can See Who You Are’: Anxiety and Bisexual Activity in the Contemporary Femme Fatale Film”, Journal of Bisexuality, Vol. 12 Issue 1 (Jan-Mar, 2012), pp.138-154.
3. Gardiner, Judith Kegan, “Female Masculinities”, Men & Masculinities, Vol. 11 Issue 5 (Aug, 2009), pp.622-633.
4. Hanson, Helen, “The Big Seduction: Feminist Film Criticism and the Femme Fatale”, in Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe eds, The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp.214-228.
5. Hayward, Susan, “Diabolically Clever – Clouzot’s French Noir Les Diaboliques (1954)”, in Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe eds, The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp.89-97.
6. Lee, Wallace, “Continuous Sex: The Editing of Homosexuality in Bound and Rope”, Screen 41.4 (2000), pp.369-387.
7. Straayer, Chris, “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Difference”, Women in Film Noir, 2nd ed., edited by E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1998), pp.153-161.