Brian De Palma has always tended to lose himself in perverse contradictions, marrying an unabashed enthusiasm for trash—he loves choreographing violence and undressing women, often in the same scene—to a highly abstract sense of cinematic high style. It's for just this reason that Martin Amis memorably remarked that De Palma's work appeals to the film-nerd and the hooligan but no one in between. I haven't admired a De Palma film since Carrie, or even enjoyed one since Scarface, so it must mean something that Femme Fatale gave me one of the best times at the movies I've had this year.
De Palma leaves his calling card in the very first shot, which shows our fatal femme, Laure, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, reflected in a TV screen as she watches Double Indemnity. Within moments, we're at a red-carpet screening at Cannes, and she's plunged into a byzantine heist involving stun guns, power blackouts, a skimpy outfit made of diamonds, lesbian sex in a toilet and, naturally, a big double cross. A self-described "bad girl, rotten to the core," Laure spends the rest of the movie in Paris fleeing the repercussions of the robbery, a hallucinatory process that gets her involved with vengeful crooks, an American ambassador to France, a hapless if handsome paparazzo (Antonio Banderas), and a distraught woman who's more than just Laure's body double—they're dead ringers.
De Palma has always been enthralled by Vertigo, and just as James Stewart's Scotty sought to turn Kim Novak's Judy into his idealized Madeleine, so De Palma has spent much of his career (most overtly in Obsession) invoking the ghost of Hitchcock's masterpiece. He's at it again in Femme Fatale, whose spiraling plotline feels positively unhinged—but this time, the obsession pays off. His champions used to claim that De Palma's films weren't simply filled with scenes of sex and violence but were self-consciously about such scenes—a commentary on storytelling—yet his ostentatious set pieces and camera moves couldn't disguise the unselfconscious seaminess at the core of Dressed to Kill or Body Double. Audiences sensed that the director cared more for his style than for his characters, or worse, that he got turned on watching his female characters being violated or slaughtered. Here, De Palma upends his reflexive penchant for violence against women—Laure is running the show—and though he clearly digs stripping off her clothing and showing her in chick-on-chick action, for once, the sleaze feels genuinely playful. This movie really is about storytelling, with startling twists and noir-subverting turns, set up with numerous sly clues. (Rather than betray its secrets, I'd simply ask you to imagine Mulholland Drive played as comedy.)
A deliberately disreputable romp, Femme Fatale asks us to lose ourselves in its lighthearted treats, be it the cocky expression on a model's face as she slinks near-naked through the Palais at Cannes, or Banderas playing queeny to trick his way into a hotel room (he's one of our great screen comedians), or even the fillip of having Peter Coyote play a nice guy (perhaps doing those voice-overs for Claritin has clarified his soul). The great revelation is Romijn-Stamos, who until now, most notably as the X-Men's Mystique, has been known less as a screen actress than as a hot bod. Here, Romijn-Stamos the actress neatly carries the picture. She's mean, funny, ingenuously disingenuous and, in a ravishing striptease near the end of the picture, so absurdly sexy that it's both punishing and goofy. The girl knows her way around a wisecrack, and Femme Fatale may do for her what Basic Instinct did for Sharon Stone. Which is to say, it's hard not to love an actress who will gleefully snap, "You don't have to lick my ass. Just fuck me."
I don't know about you, but put that line on a poster, and I'm there.
FEMME FATALE WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY BRIAN DE PALMA; PRODUCED BY TARAK BEN AMMAR AND MARINA GEFTER; AND STARS REBECCA ROMIJN-STAMOS AND ANTONIO BANDERAS. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.