Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Only In My Dreams

When you think about it, what does it matter what a person says about a movie anyway. Maybe it matters a lot, maybe I write all this because I’m always trying to figure out what exactly some of these movies mean to me. Why I connect with them. Why I’m moved by them. Why I’m fascinated by some of them. Why I need to see some of them over and over. Sometimes I see a film for the first time and I actually don’t want to try to break it down, instead I’d rather just let it linger in my brain, to see if anything about the movie is going to stick. And I wonder if some of these films just shouldn’t be analyzed at all. And there’s Brian De Palma’s 2002 thriller FEMME FATALE, which seems almost designed to be analyzed as much as possible and yet the very idea of that seems almost seems pointless, ludicrous as if the movie should be taken just the way it is no matter what you think of it. Sometimes I see the film mentioned among De Palma’s worst and I suppose I sort of get it considering certain revelations regarding the nature of what’s going on. I understand why people get so upset about it and if you’ve seen it you probably do too, whatever your own feelings are. As the years have gone on, the overriding arc of Brian De Palma’s films have seemed to move from the cynicism of his younger days into a more romantic, hopeful view through the prism of his recurring themes where what was once futile is allowed to have a brighter outlook and FEMME FATALE feels to me like a culmination of everything he has explored through his films, both the ones he also wrote and otherwise. It’s very carefully controlled even for him and yet it feels completely to me like the work of a free man, unencumbered by the necessities of ‘plot’ as if he’s realizing at long last why he wanted to make movies in the first place. No surprise, it pretty much did zero at the box office when first released but no matter what some people out there seem to think of it, as time goes on the more I feel certain that there are few films that I love quite as much as this one. In fact, I think it’s pretty close to being perfect. And that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. Maybe I’m wired differently. Maybe I’m wired wrong. Those who have seen it may understand that it has a story which is difficult to synopsize with any real coherence but, really, why should such a thing be a prerequisite, anyway? And what does it matter why you love a particular movie?

The beautiful Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn, then still with the ‘Stamos’ in her name) is a key component in a jewel heist taking part in the Cannes Film Festival. The job ends with her double-crossing several of her colleagues but although she gets away she is stranded in Paris without a passport. After an unnerving encounter with a pesky photographer named Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) who takes a sudden interest in her Laure suddenly finds herself confused for a woman who looks exactly like her, one who has recently undergone a horrific tragedy in her own life. Using the resemblance to her advantage, Laure takes the woman’s passport and recently purchased plane ticket to the U.S. and leaves. On the plane in the guise of the grieving woman she meets a wealthy American businessman named Bruce Hewitt Watts (Peter Coyote) who begins to comfort her as she breaks down in phony tears. Cut to seven years later--Laure is now Lily, married to Watts who has just been named the U.S. ambassador to France which forces her to return to the country for the first time since the job just as her past is rising up to seek her out once again and that very same photographer is about to get much more than he bargained for in this next encounter...

There’s no way to write out some of that plot, let alone the points that I haven’t covered, without acknowledging how most of it sounds patently absurd but in the best De Palma tradition FEMME FATALE never seems to deny this, simply proceeding forward with all the screwy conviction in the world and you’re either going to get in the out-of-control car to go along with it and the risk of getting caught in a fiery wreck or you’re not. Simple as that. I suspect my own fascination with Brian De Palma’s films will never die, just as I find his stylistic thrillers that play as much as possible with structure endlessly fascinating within their bounds of experimentation, of sleaze, of filtering themes which are certainly recognizable from certain other directors through his own point of view, part satiric, part provocation and all somehow strangely meaning every single frame one hundred percent through the characters he guides through these bizarre storylines. And those figures somehow manage to stay with me through the years from the insistence of Jennifer Salt repeating “There was no body because there was no murder” at the end of SISTERS, being forever haunted by that little girl who won’t stop staring at Angie Dickinson in the elevator in DRESSED TO KILL, the earnest doofus nature of Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE and, of course, the torture John Travolta is forcing himself to go through at the end of BLOW OUT. Even the whining of Lolita Davidovich in RAISING CAIN, dealing with a husband who she has somehow never realized is totally insane, falls into this category and that particular film is maybe the most radical movie De Palma has ever taken towards such structural madness and even the director has stated some dissatisfaction with how that turned out. FEMME FATALE reigns in those furthest extremes somewhat back in towards an approach that is a little more deliberately structured yet somehow much more daring. In the end the overall effect is more rewarding than a few of his other films which seem to basically throw up their hands when the credits roll, aware they’re never going to give the viewer the satisfaction they would expect and in a strange way it’s much more hopeful than he maybe was willing to allow before as if he’d finally figured out a way to let in some light for the characters he was gleefully moving around like pieces on a chess board. But instead of a retreat from the basics of his style FEMME FATALE embraces every ounce of ridiculousness it can with every ounce of enthusiasm De Palma can display from laying out these sequences, of forcing us to wonder just where the hell this could all possibly lead to next. Fifteen minutes in there’s no way a first-time viewer could guess where this will all lead to by the one-hour mark and there really are very few movies that one could seriously say that about.

And more than any other of his thrillers of this ilk FEMME FATALE really does seem to hit the reset button every fifteen minutes or so as it moves on to a new section and at times to a new point of view, through the various incarnations of Laure to Nicolas Bardo and back again, water forever being poured, nothing quite explained at first. It all lays out as parts of a collage, much like that piece of art that photographer Banderas is spending years working on, as De Palma (he has sole screenplay credit) lays out this story of this beyond gorgeous blonde who wants to be this femme fatale, who believes that she as, acting as she thinks she’s supposed to up against a guy trying to atone for what he’s done but is always one step behind, just as almost every other man who falls for such a woman in every single noir ever made. De Palma takes from what he’s done before, what he’s been influenced from Hitchcock or Powell or whoever as he moves through his long takes, split screens and endless stretches of having the dialogue drop out all in his pursuit of total cinema with a complete awareness and even mockery of this level of auteur—hard not to love a film with a gag where a film gets shut off at its gala premiere the instant the director’s credit is onscreen. And it’s a style that is always aware of how he’s laying out the information and how much we’re going to register--in the DVD special features he points out one bit of business that is supposed to be a big revelation near the end yet he’s already placed it in full view right in the center of a shot without anyone realizing. Even now, getting close to a decade since it opened when I watch it I’m still discovering subtle clues and pieces of foreshadowing laid in throughout, with the 1.85 frame the director uses this time out continually active. Combining that with influences that seem to come from some unexpected places, like the fight seen entirely in shadow as the lead watches that seems like a possible reference to Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (which shares nothing in common plotwise with FEMME FATALE but it still seems like the two would make an intriguing pairing as a double bill), it all provides a continued high that is there right from the start with the approach taken to the opening heist sequence—in almost any other film starting things off with such a bravura sequence would reduce the impact of everything still to come. But FEMME FATALE is not any other film.

As the lead character referred to in the title is introduced during that heist the film drops us into as soon as the opening credits have ended we’re delayed in getting a full look at her face when instead there’s a close-up of her camera in front of it, as if an acknowledgement of how this film really will be entirely from her perspective, in every way that implies. Dropping us into this extended sequence with only the information we absolutely need to know given, scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto to a Bolero-like waltz (slyly called “Bolerish” on the soundtrack album, actually) making clear the seduction going on both within what is occurring between both the lead character and the equally stunning supermodel played by Rie Rasmussen wearing the diamonds in question as well as the seduction of the audience, getting sucked into this heist as if floating through it, with every single shot and edit emitting a sinuous elegance that rarely ever happens, that maybe only this particular director is really capable or interested in, anymore. Along with that feel is a mixture of the beauty of Paris and a few streets that probably don’t get filmed in very much—regardless, it’s an enticing look at the city and Coyote’s character going on about the things he loves in France feel like De Palma letting his own feelings be known, as if saying he’d be more than happy to make films there forever if he could.

The deadpan nature of how the narrative glides into its ‘seven years later’ section seems to sidestep any possible questioning—is this movie taking place in the future now? Has she really been pulling off such a charade this long?—almost as if it wants us to get lost in this imagery, in the deceitfulness of the character of Laure/Lily and how she twists things into her favor, particularly when she finally begins dealing with Bardo the paparazzi and gladly revealing everything about herself because she has absolutely no reason not to. And what she does deserves all that attention. You mean the motion picture camera wasn’t invented in the first place simply to photograph Rebecca Romijn-Stamos doing that striptease? Do you ever think that you’ll convince me otherwise? With a look brought to the film by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast that is impeccably immaculate, so sharp I feel like I could step into the frame to make a move on Laure in that sleazy club if I wasn’t so intimidated by her. The big twist near the end (I’m trying to go light on spoilers, as perverse as such a concept might be when it comes to this movie) is certainly a deal breaker for many people and again, I get why but not for me—not only is its very nature laid out within the film’s first moments but it seems absolutely consistent given the film’s theme and ultimately it twists itself into becoming the theme for pretty much Brian De Palma’s entire directorial output as well. The film is so loose, so enjoyable, it works completely and totally. FEMME FATALE is a game. It’s a waltz. It’s joyous. It’s ridiculous. Maybe I should hate it. And yet I can’t think of a single thing about it I would want to change (just to complain about something, the Warner DVD screws up some of the subtitles, including a key moment near the very end so if there’s ever a Blu-ray hopefully that will be fixed). Watching FEMME FATALE is like getting a buzz from the finest whiskey known to man only without the burden of actually drinking the booze. No hangover here—the rush from this film can stay with me for days. And I never want it to end. The filmography of Brian De Palma simply wouldn’t be complete without it.

Rebecca Romijn, in her first lead role after doing not much filmwise beyond the one-line role of Mystique in Bryan Singer’s X-MEN (does a recurring role getting married to David Spade on JUST SHOOT ME count?), was reportedly cast after the attached Uma Thurman dropped out after getting pregnant but watching every single movement made as Romijn slinks through the frame without fear it’s impossible to imagine anyone else. The actress finds something strangely real within unreality of every single identity she has, bringing a sense of joy and undeniable intensity. When she riffs on something she’s heard Barbara Stanwyck say while watching DOUBLE INDEMNITY on TV you can tell she absolutely means it. And looking at those close-ups of her, well, I may as well admit that she’s so fucking hot I almost can’t take it. As she says in her most famous line here, “You don’t have to lick my ass. Just fuck me.” And she gets away with it. It should put her in the pantheon. Spitting “Fuck you,” at his co-star just before moving in for the kiss, Antonio Banderas doesn’t have as much to work with in his supporting role but he seems totally game and sells how quickly he falls into this quicksand without even realizing. Peter Coyote ideally presents the presumed decency of his ambassador with a touch of suspicion, the very imposing Eriq Ebouaney oozes deadly charisma as heist mastermind “Black Tie”, Rie Rasmussen more than lives up to how willing De Palma’s camera is to gaze at her as Veronica, the model wearing all those diamonds, and the always welcome Gregg Henry doesn’t have much to do beyond give that glare of his but boy, is it cool. Director RĂ©gis Wargnier along with star Sandrine Bonnaire appear premiering their own film EAST-WEST in the opening sequence (it was made several years before, actually) and Romijn’s then-husband John Stamos can be heard uncredited on the phone as Bardo’s agent.

The lyrical piano theme that works its way into Sakamoto’s score seems to echo back through to the films he made in the 70s and early 80s, that seems to echo back into my brain of some other film I’ve long since forgotten yet will always remember. I don’t understand it, but it feels like something I know down to my bones. Just as I feel some connection to the films made by this director and, yes, maybe this is an impossible film to write about. How is it even possible to explain the meaning I get out of all this madness? Only that within what a turn-on this is there’s a sort of glorious redemption that comes off of it, of good coming from evil and a form of hope that comes from all of the sin the director puts on the screen. The inherent absurdity of it all can’t be denied but so what? The film’s final image is kind of a joke, as much as the film itself is, but a pretty great joke just as the film itself is. Also, it occurred to me last year when it was screened at the New Beverly on a double bill with BLOW OUT how much the ending is meant to be the polar opposite of that film in how the final beat is the final touch on a creative work which the whole movie has been building to. In the earlier film it’s beyond tragic, beyond cynical. Here, it’s irrational yet glorious, a total vindication and willingness to find beauty in the absurd, a group of images put together by its director in pursuit of a total picture. And with FEMME FATALE, he succeeds and by the end it feels like a summation of all his previous films in a way that few other directors ever really achieve or even have a chance to attempt and it’s gotten to the point that there are few films I love quite as much. Watching it makes me want to dance with joy at the end in a total celebration of cinema and all that’s good about it. I love this film. I’d fuck it in the back of a sleazy bar with French techno music blaring if I could. As far as I’m concerned if you don’t like this film, you have no interest in Brian De Palma. And if you can’t get swept up in this delirium then I’m not sure what sort of interest you have in films in the first place. Because when you really come right down to it, if you become willing to open yourself up to this sort of madness then all of cinema can be a dream. FEMME FATALE is cinema.

And that makes 500 posts.


YZF said...

Being honest here -- I've never made it all the way through this movie. But now I'm determined to try.

500 posts = holy moly!

Adam Ross said...

Thanks for reminding me that I need to add this to my next Amazon cart. And here's to your next 500!

JeanRZEJ said...

I recently saw this, what may only be the second De Palma film I've seen in its entirety, and I was impressed. You illuminate a great deal of interesting career history which certainly provides a context I was wholly unaware of, and I appreciate that extra angle of insight. From my interactions with people who love this film it seems that this film works as a culmination as much as a film unto itself, so I'm not sure if my experience could have ever been optimal. Still, there are a tantalizing number of little clever bits scattered throughout which impressed me along the way that the 'big reveal' didn't really bother me one way or another, it was merely another trick in the bag. I guess my own relative disinterest in plot served me well to some degree because the atmosphere of the film remains relatively unchanged no matter the circumstance or plot-inversion that goes on. It's a good film, but, as your writing shows, I haven't yet experienced all of the detail beyond the frame. I appreciate the enlightenment, though, as always.

Her, Suzanne76 said...

best piece on my 2nd favorite (OBSESSION will always be number one) De palma film. This entry was being forwarded a lot in june during nyc's BamCinematek DePalma erotic thriller series series. Your piece is not just good, it's right..in my bones, like the logic and feel of FEMME FATALE. And it's useless to break down. This film watches me back as much as i try to watch 'it.'

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

If anybody ever reads this, thank you so much for the comments. I can't believe I never responded to these, I really love them.

Her, Suzanne76, since you just left this today I want to thank you from the bottom of my soul for what you said. It's so wonderful to hear from someone who feels the same way about this film. All my best to you.