Whenever a good director makes a visually stunning movie out of a flawed or absurd scenario, there's a tendency to applaud his sow's-ear-to-silk-purse witchcraft and forgive the script's shortcomings. But how do you deal with a movie like Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale," where the lousy scenario the filmmaker rescues with his expertise was written, unaided, by that very same director?
Set in France, "Femme Fatale" is a bizarre, pictorially spectacular sex-fantasy thriller, with sultry model/actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos playing an international bad girl and Antonio Banderas playing her paparazzi nemesis/lover. The film is De Palma's tribute to film noir, to Paris and to the cinema itself.
Visually, it's an extraordinary work. De Palma and his brilliant French cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ("The Horseman on the Roof") pull off one virtuoso sequence after another: amazing tracking shots and sumptuous long takes, split-screen extravaganzas juxtaposing simultaneous action and dozens of tributes and allusion to other films, beginning with a raunchy homage to Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." Under the credits, we see "Indemnity" star Barbara Stanwyck's wicked Phyllis Dietrichson on a hotel TV screen with Romijn-Stamos' near-nude body reflected as she watches, transfixed.
That's how De Palma often establishes character and emotion: He refers to or replicates some other movie and uses it to hot-wire our emotions. In "Femme Fatale," he's taking the old conventions of noir - and the noir tradition of the lethal, amoral, sexy heroine - and transplanting them to a modern French landscape seething with new-style eroticism and glamorous kinks. Romijn-Stamos is white-hot temptress and high-tech thief Laure Ash, whom we soon see pulling off an elaborate jewel heist at a Cannes Film Festival premiere of Regis Wargnier's 1999 "East-West" along with her surly boss Black Tie (Eriq Ebouaney) and his cohort Racine (Edouard Montoute) - and then ditching them and fleeing to Paris.
The Cannes sequence showcases the virtuoso screwiness of the whole movie. As a piece of cinema logistics, it's incredible, beginning with a little docu-fakery as the camera catches Wargnier, "East-West" star Sandrine Bonnaire and Wargnier's fictitious date (Rie Rasmussen) as Cannes boss Gilles Jacob greets them on the Palais du Cinema steps. Then, we plunge into the elaborate heist.
It's a doozy, with Laure wordlessly seducing Veronica into joining her in the Cannes ladies' room (outrageously re-imagined) for an elaborate petting session in which she strips Veronica of a gold serpentine costume and diamonds - while Black Tie lurks outside the stall and their other co-conspirators stage what seems to be a leftover "Mission: Impossible" heist involving special suits, ultraviolet viewers and the killing of the entire Lumiere electrical system. But it's also ridiculous - a heist so impossibly over-embellished, and depending so completely on Laure's talent for instant seduction, that it makes no sense.
It's a lot of fun, but it's dopey. It's a flashy set piece almost untied to character or story. That's the trouble with "Femme Fatale" as a whole: It's a string of set pieces, right through the midsection where Laure flees to Paris and becomes involved with both photographer Nicolas (Banderas) and rich American politico Bruce Watts (Peter Coyote), and through every magnificently staged and shot twist that follows, up to the final set piece on a Paris street that, like "Vertigo," echoes and replays the set pieces that preceded it.
In between, the movie keeps swinging between ecstatic images and camera tricks and agonizingly silly plot twists, clumsy dialogue and a few soft-core strips with Romijn-Stamos. De Palma the director keeps earning plaudits even as De Palma the writer keeps inspiring raspberries. And though both Romijn-Stamos and Banderas make big impressions on screen - as does Ebouaney (of "Lumumba"), who's a powerful, simmering screen presence as the villain - their characters have no levels or layers. Their sexy ciphers zipping around a sex-and-violence nightmare "Vertigo" video game.
I won't try to untangle the plot for you. But while I was watching it - for the third time - I kept wondering why De Palma didn't simply hire good script collaborators for these "personal" works (like "Body Double" or "Raising Cain"), writers who can supply him with the sharp dialogue and characterization he doesn't muster himself.
"Femme Fatale" is a feast for hard-core movie or De Palma buffs (and Romijn-Stamos junkies) but a famine for anyone looking for a good story. And there's absolutely no reason De Palma, a superb technician with a weakness for script fatales, couldn't give us both.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Brian De Palma; photographed by Thierry Arbogast; edited by Bill Pankow; production designed by Anne Pritchard; music by Ryuichi Sakamoto; produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, Marina Gefter. A Warner Bros. release; opened Wednesday, Nov. 6. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (for strong sexuality, violence and language).
Laure Ash - Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Nicolas Bardo - Antonio Banderas
Bruce Hewitt Watts - Peter Coyote
Black Tie - Eriq Ebouaney
Racine - Edouard Montoute
Veronica - Rie Rasmussen Shiff - Gregg Henry
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times