A reverie about beautiful women and the seductiveness of the movies, Brian De Palma's exuberant, blissfully entertaining new thriller "Femme Fatale" stars Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a thief who steals $10 million in jewels before taking off with another woman's identity. Set in Cannes and Paris, the film has the high-buffed gloss and high-octane jolts you expect of De Palma, but what makes it transporting is that it's also one of the smartest, most pleasurable expressions of pure movie love to come from an American director in years. It's the 24th feature De Palma has directed -- as well as the first of his films he's written in a decade -- but it feels and plays like the work of an artist newly born.
The story opens at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival where the thief is part of an audacious robbery. Dressed as a press photographer, Laure has lured the woman wearing the jewels (Rie Rasmussen, a fashion model with switchblade hips) into a ladies room stall for a scandalously sexy version of strip poker. (Each nuzzle elicits a karat.) Then a gun is fired and Laure turns on one of her partners in crime, a dapper villain (Eriq Ebouaney) whom she coolly neutralizes with the butt of his own gun. Minutes later, she is strutting the red carpet to freedom, as if she were catwalking for the latest Gaultier show, another De Palma woman on the loose and the prowl.
Like Hitchcock, De Palma has a thing for blonds, the classic embodiment of Hollywood's sexual Holy Grail, and he's borrowed the master's kink for masquerading women. The next time we see Laure after the jewel heist, she's wearing a brunet wig and standing outside a Parisian cathedral. What happens next is outlandish, outrageous. A former paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) whips out a camera and snaps her picture, forcing Laure into a church where she's mistaken for a missing woman named Lily. From there, Laure is catapulted down a rabbit hole of logic that finds her assuming the missing woman's identity, a switch that brings an extended idyll with a fairy-book husband (Peter Coyote), then the sort of third-act comeuppance we expect in movies about women gone wrong.
There's more, much more -- a cynical cop, a plunge in the Seine, an overflowing barrel of red herrings -- but to spell out the plot of "Femme Fatale" in detail would be to drain it of its greatest triumph: the ability to surprise. De Palma has always shocked us with sex and violence, but after creating the template for the modern thriller with "Dressed to Kill," a titillating fantasia of psychological pulp and predatory camera moves that brought Hitchcock-style suspense into the slasher era, he seemed unsure of where to go next. He stumbled badly with his crude Hollywood satire "Body Double," a botched reductio ad absurdum about movies and sexualized violence that, with its leering hostility toward women and cartoon atrocities, only proved that even smart guys can't always keep a handle on their fixations.
Freed from the constraints of censorship that kept Hitchcock's obsessions sublimated, De Palma doesn't need to obscure his fascination with sex and violence under the cloak of art or propriety. He can be vulgar about his likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to women, and I haven't always liked the female characters in his films or what he's done with them. The disreputable aspect of his enthusiasms gives his work juice, but these same preoccupations have also led him astray, especially in stories where the frenzy of sex, the frenzy of violence and the frenzy brought on by so much female pulchritude have seemed interchangeable
To an extent, "Femme Fatale" serves as a corrective to "Body Double," particularly in terms of its spellbinding lead. A fashion model and men's magazine fetish, Romijn-Stamos has had her biggest screen roles to date in the comic-book fantasy "The X-Men," where she prowled about in little more than blue paint, and the action dud "Rollerball." She seems like an unlikely femme fatale, but not since Sissy Spacek burned up the screen in "Carrie" has a De Palma woman held the screen as forcefully as Romijn-Stamos, an Amazon blond straight from Helmut Newton's portfolio. In the age of the incredibly shrinking, professionally demure American female actress, there are few women who can hold the screen as Romijn-Stamos does, with her cat eyes and lustily confident physicality. It's no wonder that the first time we see her she's watching Barbara Stanwyck zap it to Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity."
For all the unease about De Palma's women, there's no denying that, unlike many of his New Hollywood peers, he also makes movies in which they're more than afterthoughts. His debt to Hitchcock isn't just a matter of camera moves and Bernard Herrmann-like swells; rather, it springs from a shared obsessions -- with women, with seeing the forbidden, with the double helix of fear and desire. As with Hitchcock, he loves to watch and especially loves to watch women, and with Romijn-Stamos he's found a woman who can stand up to his scrutiny. The compulsion to watch is why De Palma keeps returning to "Vertigo" and "Rear Window," and it accounts for the very quality of his bristling style -- the propulsive camerawork, the ostentatious cutting, even the way he grabs our attention as if he were grabbing our throats, trying to force us to see what he sees.
"Femme Fatale" is all about looking. It's about noticing everything in the frame and understanding how movies make meaning with images, and not only plot and dialogue. There isn't a single wasted or empty shot in the film; everything counts. "Femme Fatale" doesn't have culture or politics on its feverish mind, but it would be a mistake to underplay how smart it is or to think that it isn't slipping us ideas in between all that technique. Here, the message is the moviemaking and the unparalleled joy you get from a film that can carry you off so completely, making you forget about everything save for the beautiful lies in front of you.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, violence and language.
Times guidelines: Female nudity, lesbian sex scene, a steamy lap dance and some bloodshed.
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos ... Laure/Lily
Antonio Banderas ... Nicolas Bardo
Peter Coyote ... Watts
Eriq Ebouaney ... Black Tie
Edouard Montoute ... Racine
Rie Rasmussen ... Veronica
Tarak Ben Ammar presents a Quinta Communications Production, released by Warner Bros. Writer and director Brian De Palma. Producers Tarak Ben Ammar and Marina Gefter. Editor Bill Pankow. Director of photography Thierry Arbogast. Production designer Anne Pritchard. Music composed and performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times