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FEMME FATALE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Peter Coyote, Gregg Henry
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2003

“You look so familiar. Have we met somewhere before?”

“Only in my dreams.”

Film ***1/2

If there’s any particular genre that Brian De Palma has mastered in his 30-plus years as a filmmaker, it is that of the erotic thriller, and no other film of his could demonstrate this more than Femme Fatale, which is perhaps the sexiest thriller to come along in years. It’s long been clear that De Palma’s work has always been inspired by Hitchcock, and Femme Fatale is the most Hitchcock-like work he’s ever delivered. 

And boy, is it ever stylish!  De Palma has always been known to go for style more than substance, which most of the time results in some of his finest work, and this is no exception, but the substance is just as intriguing, and that’s largely due to two individual sections; a jaw-dropping opening sequence which takes up the first half hour, and the 360 degree twist De Palma pulls on the viewer in the end, which is quite astonishing. It is simply the director’s finest piece of work in years.

The film begins with such a stunner of an opening sequence, that it should inspire a Best Opening Sequence award. It takes place at the actual Cannes Film Festival, where an elaborate diamond heist is about to take place, but not in the way you’d expect. Expert thief Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and her team of ruthless heist men are targeting an elegant dress worn by one a female attendee, which happens to include nearly $10 million in diamonds. Laure seduces the woman in the ladies room, while at the same time seductively removing the diamonds from the dress. A twist to the plan comes when it is revealed that Laure is stealing the diamonds for herself and betraying her fellow thieves. This entire sequence is riveting in the way it relies mainly on camera movements and execution, and much less on dialogue, which is extremely little. The sumptuous score by Ryuichi Sakamoto that plays in every second is still playing in my head as I write this review.  

With the heist men on her trail and her future very bleak, Laure sees a chance opportunity to turn her life around. After she witnesses the suicide of a French woman who looks a lot like her, Laure assumes the dead woman’s identity and then flees to America. On her flight, she meets a charming man (Peter Coyote), whom she grows a liking to. Seven years go by, and that man has now become the American Ambassador to France, and she has become his wife.

Enter Nicolas Bardow (Antonio Banderas), a paparazzi photographer with a troubled past. Bardow has been given an offer through a contact, which is to get a good picture of the Ambassador’s wife, which no publication seems to have. He does so, and then sells his picture to the tabloids for a five-figure pay. His world is soon turn way upside down when he meets the woman in a hotel room, and she slowly begins to ignite a flirting session. Finding himself strangely and physically drawn to Laure, Bardow is suckered into something of a scheme, as she sets him up as her kidnapper, hoping to have the American Ambassador pay a 10 million dollar ransom, and she can secretly start over once again. But Bardow may have a secret agenda of his own.

It may seem as if I have revealed more than I should have, but the truth is I haven’t. A twist is sparked at the film’s end which some may question the possibility of, but from my viewpoint, you simply have to go with it, and when you do, you will be awestruck by a final play of events that after which, you may find yourself applauding.

Being an admirer of Mr. De Palma’s work, the one thing I loved most about Femme Fatale were the trademark filming techniques that the director help breathe into modern day cinema. The split screen effect, as used in Blow Out, Carrie, and Snake Eyes is put to grand use here in many sequences. And the fact that De Palma, who wrote the screenplay, decided to shoot revealing key scenes without any dialogue was pure genius in my opinion. The movie itself, if you think about it, is an exercise in cinematic voyeurism, where watching closely for things to unfold is the key. It’s one of those rare cases where the viewer is made into a voyeur, and at the same time can respect themselves in the morning.

For Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, this represents a career high for them both. Banderas is convincing as the photographer who gets way more than he ever bargained for, and Ms. Romijn-Stamos is the ideal choice to play the part of a true femme fatale. She has killer looks, can deceive real easily, and does anything to get what she wants, I do mean anything. The first scene in the movie has her lying on a bed watching Double Indemnity, which is something of a sign of things to come.

To sum it up, Femme Fatale is vintage Brian De Palma, filled with the unique elements that have made him the kind of stylish director that he is today. It’s a one of a kind thriller experience fans of his won’t soon forget.

Video ****

Stunning! Absolutely stunning! As far as De Palma movies go, it’s one of the best presented on DVD. Warner has delivered thus far one of the best looking video transfers of this year, as the picture emerges with all of the style and visual power of a De Palma movie. Image quality is thoroughly sharp and clear, never encountering any flaws, and making terrific use of color and lighting. The split screen sequences, in particular, are stunning to look at.  

Audio ****

With a film like this which is light on the dialogue, the 5.1 audio mix does a tremendous job of making the most of the filming techniques. The lavish sets and sequences, like the opening heist, and the frequent split screen uses deliver the most in dynamic sound range on this presentation. Dialogue, when spoken, is very much in the clearest of form.

Features ***

I’ll give this area an extra dose of credit. There are three featurettes featured on the disc, and they are all done very nicely. There is your basic press kit featurette, and there are two very in-depth documentaries, titled “From Dream to Reality” and “Dream Within a Dream”. Also included is a photo gallery titled the “Dressed to Kill Montage”, and two trailers for the movie, the American and French versions.

Summary:

Femme Fatale is a true return to form for the great Brian De Palma, as it ranks with some of the best films he’s ever done. Get ready for a sexy, visually charged ride!

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