Femme Fatale

November, 2002, Thriller

Brian DePalma's directorial career has been marked by more ups and downs than the stock market. After an early string of low-budget films deliberately aimed at young, supposedly hip audiences, (Greetings, Hi Mom, Get To Know Your Rabbit) he exploded into the big leagues with the low-budget horror classic Carrie. That shocker, which caught the attention of critics with its unique, lushly shot violence, spawned a whole generation of ever more grotesque copycats. He then turned his attention to erotically charged thrillers, (Dressed To Kill, Body Double, Scarface), which displayed lots of female anatomy in sufficiently kinky style that rumors persisted he wanted to make a leap into the stag flick genre with Annette Haven, one of the reigning porno queens of the post-Deep Throat era.  Yet along with his passion for the lurid came impressive story telling skills, most evident in his ability to present plot developments in long, graceful takes that demonstrated really wonderful mastery of his craft. His work has always intrigued me because of its tendency to exaggerate what he's trying to accomplish, as though he wants to subvert the very film traditions he's ostensibly revering." You want violence and gore?" he seems to ask innocently, "then watch me deliver it with such excess I dare you to watch my work with a straight face." The French think he's a genius; American audiences are more ambivalent, and many worry his repeated focus on the sexually-active-woman-as victim goes beyond adolescent fixation into disturbing female misanthropy.   

He's been at it for over 30 years, mixing solid work, (The Untouchables, Carlito's Way) with real clunkers, (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission To Mars) without ever being quite able to escape the charge that he's incapable of being more than visually clever. His latest film, a slick, fast moving Paris-based thriller will surely please his fans without converting his critics. In it, De Palma presents an intricate jewel theft, (in a visually stunning opening sequence) which sets in motion a seven year tale of revenge, duplicity, assumed identities and violence as complicated as it is handsome to observe. The director's trademark passion for the undressed female form gets unquestioned mileage from Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, a leading lady who looks as though she'd be more comfortable on the runway of a fashion show. Antonio Banderas plays the Spanish paparazzi whose innocent snapshot of a beautiful woman on the steps of a cathedral propels the post-jewel heist action. 

But does a subtext lurk amid the double crosses and gorgeous mayhem? Is DePalma doing his version of the classic North By Northwest? That film turned on Cary Grant's chance encounter with a group of spies and counter spies in a New York hotel bar which led to a cross country train ride, (with luscious/duplicitous Eva Marie) Saint and a climatic finale played out on the face of Mount Rushmore as exciting as it was improbable. Working from his own story and screenplay, De Palma here asks his audience to accept an array of improbabilities so obviously over the top one has to conclude he's mocking us as he's sending up Hitchcock, the master of screen suspense. 

What Robert Altman did in The Long Goodbye, (his send-up of the hard boiled detective genre) required audiences to confront their naivety about private-eyes; what De Palma achieves here is a riff on the use of wild improbabilities, but he goes about it without Hitch's self-deprecating sense of humor. Altman confronted audiences, Hitchcock teased them, but DePalma smirks at us. Pick your poison.

The director's trademark cinematography is brilliant; the opening jewel theft inter-cuts a series of complex moves by all three members of the heist team, (plus an insider) through numerous, dazzling takes in a crowded theater, using a sly take off of Ravel's Bollero rather than dialogue to enhance the viewer's tension as the robbery runs badly off track and sets up the chase which follows. This early sequence recalls the exuberant start to the director's recent Snake Eyes, and manages to mix sexuality and grand larceny about as sensuously as can possibly be imagined. Using split screen images to simultaneously show the same action from two different viewpoints and complex cuts to push the action forward, DePalma once again displays his skill at slick contrivance.  

What Ms. Romijn-Stamos lacks in thespian skill, she more than makes up for in pulchritude; De Palma provides ample coverage of her lovely bosom, along with a strip tease as explicit as it is self-consciously extraneous. Late in the movie, her plunge into the Seine combines slow motion camera work with dreamy underwater shots which propel the plot's trick denouement even as they display Ms. Stamos' abundantly natural charms. The plot's red-herrings are imaginatively resolved by the fadeout, but in the end, it's all eye-candy, wrapped in the director's typical smugness and insistent invitation to participate in his brand pf Victoria Secret-style voyeurism. If you don't take it too seriously, and you don't mind the mocking anti-Hitchcockian tone, you'll have a good time. And Ms. Stamos sure does a mean bump 'n grind.         


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