The issue of homage, or paying tribute to another director's work in one's own, is ubiquitous throughout the history of cinema. Films are - unavoidably and inextricably - informed, to lesser and greater extents, by all that have preceded. It is, however, much less clear as to what homage exactly connotes. Is it merely a nod from one director to another, signifying both knowledge and respect or is it a crutch utilized by those that have nothing novel to speak of themselves? By this I mean to say are we, as an audience, witnessing outright thievery or benign critical acknowledgment? Are we dealing with a valid means by which greater meaning and context can be established, or a shortcut which attempts to assert credibility through referential masturbation? ("Wow, did you catch that? He/She sure knows his/her Eisenstein, etc. I am feeling rather smart for noticing that.")
Is it all of the above to varying degrees based upon the extent to which the homage is presented? This can be a valuable mode of analysis, if ultimately frustrating, as there are no correct - let alone absolute - answers to be had. It will therefore not be terribly surprising to anyone familiar with writer/director Brian DePalma that his latest excursion to the cinematic fun house, Femme Fatale, has been met with a mixture of critical accolades and outright contempt. It can prove a tricky matter indeed attempting to gauge just how seriously DePalma and his films should be taken - after all, this is a director who even pays homage to his own films.
I can think of a precious few filmmakers that consistently find themselves more squarely centered in this debate than Brian DePalma. Depending on whom you ask, he will be championed as a master in his own right - albeit one certainly influenced by Hitchcock (as the most obvious example) - but a vigorous and valid auteur nonetheless. Others, however, will passionately argue that he is nothing short of a fraud and a hack, a man who certainly knows how to direct a film technically but is so indebted to the works of others - and to such a large extent - that his oeuvre lacks any significant meaning outside the realm of pure cinema. Defenders will proffer that he merely amps up the aspects of sex and violence (such as in Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Obsession, all written or co-written by DePalma himself) that were inherent in the subtext of the key Hitchcock films that inform his work (Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, Marnie), but - due to the confines of time and culture – were not and could not be explicitly shown.
Detractors argue that DePalma merely feigns depth with his cinematic allusions to past, recent, and even current masters and that he is largely an over-the-top, brazen schlockmeister primarily concerned with base thrills (naked women, graphic violence, and graphic violence often directed against women, naked or otherwise) and pulpy melodrama rather than earnest exploration of his recurring themes, i.e., voyeurism, obsession, masculinity, punishment, perception. I think that's the crux: DePalma can easily be read as desiring to want it both ways - as pandering to the film geek community for critical validation, while simultaneously making films that can and will be accessible to a mass audience.
Further complicating analysis (for me anyway) is DePalma's collective body of work. I was quite surprised upon realizing just how many of his films were in my personal collection. It was as if he snuck in there somehow, under the radar and without fanfare. I should probably qualify this: I tend to greatly enjoy his less mainstream (read: more personal) fare. I bought my copy of Dressed to Kill the day it was released, and did the same for Blow Out and Criterion's release of Sisters. I especially enjoy Body Double (even though something tells me I really shouldn't), largely for its rampant sleaziness and unapologetic outrageousness (I mean, to murder an object of the gaze with a long, thick power drill - jeez).
However, his "Hollywood" productions, which also demonstrate many of his signature visual flourishes (majestic setpieces, long, predatory tracking shots, swirling camera moves, split screens) had also made their way in there: Carrie, the Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Scarface (all written by others). Normally, if I own more than, say, seven or so films by any certain director, it almost invariably means that they are situated in the pantheon of my personal favorites. Such was not the case - or so I suspected upon cursory thought - for DePalma. The recurring questions struck me again: can the auteur and the highly competent and stylish studio director be reconciled? (I have similar questions about Steven Soderbergh.) Can visual consistency and storytelling override his frequent expository weaknesses (at least in the screenplays he is responsible for) and conceits? Does any of this matter at all if I simply enjoy watching and subsequently thinking about his films?
Given DePalma's unabashed use of homage / allusion, I certainly understand why he is both celebrated and reviled in almost equal measure. However, I believe that very few current directors are as obviously and exuberantly in love with cinema, with the camera and the way it can move, with the subjects it so lovingly gazes upon (again, mostly highly sexualized females, often and not coincidentally blonde), and the collective means by which viewers can be so easily manipulated and intoxicated (music, editing, composition, etc.) in the right set of hands. And that love, for me, is highly contagious. It can also be deeply moving and rewarding. And Femme Fatale proves to be no exception.
Beginning with a scene from the noir classic Double Indemnity and quickly moving onto the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 (again with the references), DePalma's opening to Femme Fatale is a bravura and nervy creation. It immediately brought to mind two of my favorite sequences from previous films: the breathtaking opening to Snake Eyes, and the stalking sequence of Angie Dickinson through the Met (my personal favorite) in Dressed to Kill. My resistance to this type of visual extravagance is pretty much nonexistent, at least insofar as DePalma is concerned; your mileage may vary. Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the titular femme fatale, is soon found in the bathroom (after posing as a press photographer on the red carpet), engaged in a heavy Sapphic lip-lock with a mark (Rie Rasmussen) who happens to be wearing ten million dollars worth of diamonds embedded in a snake-like piece of jewelry doubling as a top. The game's now afoot for DePalma, the audience, and his femme fatale - the heist seemingly goes awry, and Ash is on the run from her co-conspirators.
Fleeing to America after being accosted, she meets and subsequently marries a wealthy businessman (Peter Coyote) who becomes the U.S. Ambassador to, ahem, France. Obviously, she will have to return to her homeland at some point to face her demons. When she does return (seven years later, as Lily) her image is captured by a down-on-his-luck photographer (Antonio Banderas) and published in the papers. With her cover now in jeopardy of being blown - and her ex-partners (Eriq Ebouaney and Edouard Montoute) closing in - the viewer is soon treated to an exhilarating array of flash-forwards, Machiavellian maneuvering, identity crises, police interrogations, hothouse eroticism, doppelgängers, watchers being watched – the typical DePalma stew, albeit one served with a novel twist this time around in contrast to his past treatments of similar motifs. It's probably not wise to delve too deeply into the subsequent plot developments here, as this sort of twisty narrative not only defies logical description, but is almost impossible to summarize in a spoiler-proof fashion. You'll simply have to see Femme Fatale to believe it. Maybe.
Video: Femme Fatale is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer itself is quite good. Since staging, composition, and bold camera movements are hallmarks of DePalma's films, the DVD is simply a pleasure to behold. Black levels and flesh tones are excellent, and Thierry Arbogast's cinematography and color palette (and coding) are given a fine representation. Narrative leaps notwithstanding, it's almost impossible to not enjoy viewing Femme Fatale.
Audio: Femme Fatale includes soundtracks in English and French DD 5.1. The sound design compliments the proceedings quite nicely, and since DePalma almost always thrusts his score to the fore to comment on the proceedings, the music (courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto) suggests and manipulates accordingly. The strings and horns (especially during the Cannes heist) sound clear and true, and there is also some effective bass representation during a rather busy thunderstorm that had me reaching for the remote. All in all, very well done.
Extras: There are four featurettes on board here: From Dream to Reality, Dream Within a Dream, and Femme Fatale: Behind the Scenes. Also on board are the North American and French theatrical trailers, as well as a Femme Fatale: Dressed to Kill montage. Although not exhaustive, the supplements offer some insight into the film, as well as DePalma's technique. Spoiler alert: I will not comment any further on the extras; it is strongly recommended that they only be viewed after the film itself.
Final Thoughts: I simply have no idea as to how individual viewers will respond to Femme Fatale. Not only is the overall film likely to split audiences down the middle, the denouement especially is such that declarations of both exhilaration and disgust can be entirely appropriate. Succinctly put, there is no safety net or middle of the road sensibility to be found in Femme Fatale. Reaction will vary based upon the viewer's subjective disposition walking into the film (and film in general), familiarity with DePalma's formalism and his thematic concerns, and general tolerance for cinematic sleights of hand. It may also be altered or enhanced by subsequent viewing (virtually demanded by a film such as this). If your threshold is low for any of the above, and you simply cannot abide films that defy easy explanation or even categorization, then Femme Fatale is absolutely not your cup of tea. However, if you have a taste for "movie" movies, eye candy, gymnastics both sexual and camera-wise, and inventive ways of killing people to ensure maximum bloodletting, you're in good hands. I haven't been this excited by DePalma in years.