In the summer of 1991, Frederick S. Clarke founded the magazine Femme Fatales. Designed as a sister publication to Clarke's very popular and well-known publication Cinemafantastique, the magazine focused on actresses from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies, who would be spotlighted with a pin-up photoshoot and a lengthy retrospective interview about their career. Frequently, they would even be asked to contribute to the magazine as writers, giving the magazine a unique edge. After Clarke's death, his widow offered the property to Mark A. Altman, a film and television producer. Several years later, Altman brought up the magazine in a meeting with premium cable executives, and the result is "Femme Fatales," a "late night" Cinemax program about devious women trying to pull one over on their slimy husbands and boyfriends.
Although at least one or two of the episodes were apparently based on short stories published in the magazine, the connection between Clarke's Femme Fatales and Altman's "Femme Fatales" seems pretty tenuous. Instead of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, the show goes back to the film noir definition of the term, with the opening of each episode describing the show's women as sirens whose beauty is so irresistable that men will quickly get in over their heads in order to please them. Each episode is "hosted" by Tanit Phoenix as "Lilith," a fourth-wall-breaking "character" who pops up sometime in the first ten or fifteen minutes with a pun-filled monologue about this week's story, and returns again at the end to summarize the (im)moral lesson.
I want to be very clear here, so as not to be dismissed as a spoilsport: I think it's possible to make a good, sexy, "late night" cable show about women, just like I'm sure it's possible to make a similar show about men. Actually, if the balance is right, "Femme Fatales" could hit both bases. However, the premise kinda prevents the show from having any likable or cool protagonists, because they all have to be "femme fatales." Either we're going to watch an "evil" woman get what's coming to her, a "good" woman becoming corrupted by a drippy or abusive boyfriend, an innocent woman screwed over by an evil woman, or we're celebrating their evil victories. Each one presents an unfortunate stereotype of women being manipulative and evil, and then induces whiplash by leaping back and forth between wanting to see them punished for it and wanting to see them win. For a show about women, it would be nice to side with them once in awhile (not to mention, to see some more women's names in the show's credits -- not a single female writer or director this season).
Take "Behind Locked Doors," for example, a two-part episode. Obviously inspired by Lindsay Lohan, the ep follows a spoiled train-wreck starlet named Lacey Rivers (Kit Willesee), forced to serve prison time after hitting three pedestrians while Tweeting behind the wheel. In the first part, Lacey struggles to adjust to prison life, taunted by the sadistic guard Maxine (J.C. Brandy) and pursued by a butch inmate named Big Aggie (Heidi James). She's saved by her cellmate, Camille (Ana Alexander), who dislikes her at first, but steps in when Big Aggie tries to make her move. The pair begin thinking about what to do about Maxine when the episode ends. Lacey and Camille are both likable, and a good team, and Maxine and Big Aggie are good antagonists, but none of them are a "femme fatale." Thus, the second part throws all of the characters' appealing aspects in the garbage, turning Lacey selfish and manipulative. She hypnotizes a dim guard with googly eyes for her (Will Poston) into dealing with Maxine, screws over Camille, and gets cozy with the warden (Paul Mazursky). At the end of the first episode, you'd kinda like to see Lacey and Camille break out together; by the end of the second, it's frustrating to only want Lacey to get what's coming to her.
Some of the episodes are okay. "Till Death Do Us Part," about a bride-to-be (Jordan Madley) who wakes up next to a dead male stripper on her wedding day, kind of gets around the "femme fatale" angle, but ultimately ends up with an equally disappointing "backstabbing / jealousy" stereotype. "Speed Date" also makes a decent attempt, following a nerdy computer programmer (Reginald C. Hayes) who lies on his online dating profile and ends up with a former assassin (Daphne Duplaix) trying to tie off the final loose ends from her old job. "Girls Gone Dead" comes up with the most sympathetic reason all season to root for the girls, and "The Clinic", about a mysterious foreign hospital offering illegal treatment for a fatal disease, offers most likable heroine in Lindsay (Robin Sydney), a bubbly patient who bonds with protagonist Logan (Daniel Bess).
Directorially, the show is pretty basic, although the extras clearly illustrate that even these simple setups are kind of a miracle (each episode was shot in 3 days). I have to give the show a small amount of credit for encouraging at least some diversity in both body type and skin color (only one of these women is frighteningly skinny and not all of them are covered in plastic surgery!), and I do think the one brilliant little touch here is the unexpected continuity: the entire show is set in the same fictional city of Cuesta Verde, allowing characters to recur, although the show probably pushes its luck in the two-part season finale, which sort of breaks the fourth wall in a completely inexplicable way. All things considered, the problem with "Femme Fatales" is not that it's a program to be looked down upon as trash, but that its nature prevents so many people from aiming higher.
The episodes in this set break down as follows:
Disc 1: "The White Flower", "Something Like Murder", "Behind Locked Doors, Part One", "Behind Locked Doors, Part Two", "Speed Date", "Bad Medicine", "Girls Gone Dead"
Disc 2: "Till Death Do Us Part", "Help Me, Rhonda", "The Clinic", "Haunted", "Angel & Demons", "Visions: Part One", "Visions: Part Two".
"Femme Fatales": The Complete First Season comes in a transparent, single-width, 3-disc Amaray case with a flap tray, with a sort of nondescript photo of Tanit Phoenix holding a gun on the front and pictures of some of the cast on the back (you'd think they might try and make this look like an issue of the magazine...). The dual-sided paper artwork has an episode listing with short descriptions of each episode showing through on the inside of the case (over a backdrop of two women making out in silhouette), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Entertainment One's presentation of "Femme Fatales" leaves quite a bit to be desired. The 14 episodes are spread across the first two discs, which is probably one episode more than is optimal for prime DVD compression. As a result, banding and compression artifacts are significant issues for the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Shot on the RED One, clarity, detail, and color are not an issue (even if a little more soft focus might've helped the show look less stagey and low-budget), but the backgrounds are often a storm of blocks and posterization, with occasional aliasing to boot. With some poorly compressed DVDs, the viewer needs to be watching on a larger screen or really looking to spot issues, but the only thing more prominent in the show than beautiful women is the shortcomings of the DVD.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a little better, but, again, the show's low-budget nature takes something away from the experience. Dialogue sounds fine, and the music and sound effects spread out to the surround channels as expected, but the simplicity of the sound effects and the generic score all contribute to a "direct-to-DVD" feel, limiting the show's aural impressiveness. Were the show presented in 2.0 instead of 5.1, I honestly can't say it would make a huge difference. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Audio commentaries are provided on every one of the show's 14 episodes by cast and crew members. A sampling of one or two reveals them to be relaxed but unremarkable, with the usual discussion of how each episode came to be, on-set minutia, and jokes. For the hardcore fans only.
Four featurettes are included. "Creating 'Femme Fatales'" (13:32) discusses the origins of the show, starting with the magazine that the show is based on, and expanding to the classic film noir (Double Indemnity) and other TV shows ("The Twilight Zone", "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") that served as inspiration for the producers. "Shooting 'Femme Fatales': The Making of Season one" (29:55) is a longer and more specific making-of featurette that touches on each episode of the series. The overarching theme here is the intensely short production schedule (3 days an episode), but the highlight is comments from the women, who talk about the challenges of fighting naked, the bond that comes from killing together, how to react to a teabagging robot, dealing with the cold, and fear of being eaten (by stuffed polar bears) as a motivation for acting. "Making Love: Anatomy of a Sex Scene" (15:22) is a further discussion of all the nudity on the show, although for some reason there's actually quite a bit of discussion of episodes which are from the second season. Finally, the "San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Panel" (44:27) is presented in its entirety.
Additional footage includes 11 deleted and alternate scenes (37:35) from six episodes, with short text descriptions of why the scenes were deleted (the first one: "This shot was deleted because it was superflous, and deemed unflattering to the actress." Hmmm...), and a short blooper reel (5:00), as well as a photo gallery.
Two lengthy extras wrap up the disc. First, there's a director's cut of "The White Flower" (19:42) in black and white, with an optional audio commentary by the director and producer discussing the new cut, a little about Cinemax's stipulations (some of the nudity was cut out of the DC via altered framing), and the decision and process of going black-and-white. Lastly, an isolated score track for "Help Me Rhonda" (30:37) is offered as a menu screen. No idea why they chose to include it this way; it would probably have been better to include the track as an alternate audio option on the episode.
A gallery of TV spots and promos for "Femme Fatales" is also included.
"Femme Fatales" shows a fleeting glimmer of inspiration, and I firmly believe a show like this could deliver on its audience's expectations, not necessarily by curbing its exploitative nature but by at least making it equal-opportunity and playing to all audiences. Sadly, this first season only tries so hard. Rent it.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.