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Track records mean a lot in filmmaking nowadays. If you’ve got an impressive resume under your belt then your next film will generate publicity no matter what the content. Brian De Palma is no exception. With certified classics such as Scarface and Carlito’s Way to his name, the acclaimed director has a ready-made audience whenever he decides to strut his stuff. The only problem is that if his latest is a real turkey then you’re going to get some backlash, firstly from devoted fans who are nothing short of disappointed and secondly from casual observers let down by the film’s story. Femme Fatale seems to fall somewhere in between. But like all good movies it certainly generates some discussion as to its merit; is it a contrived mess or is it an underrated masterpiece?

Femme Fatale

Movie
It’s actually quite hard to describe the plot of this film. We kick off with a bang as a crafty jewel heist is pulled off in a stylish bathroom at the Cannes Film Festival. And I mean a bang, because the theft consists of two very lovely ladies tongue-wrestling in the cubicle. Laure Ash (played by the abominably sexy Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is the crook, while Rie Rasmussen (no slouch in the body department, either) is stripped of her diamond gown whilst in the throes of passion. But the heist seems to go off the rails a little, mainly due to the audacity of Ms.Ash, who double-crosses her associates and ends up fleeing with the loot.

From there it all gets incredibly complicated. Laure appears to marry a diplomat and winds up back in France, which is incredibly dangerous as jewel thieves have pretty long memories. Enter Antonio Banderas as photographer Nicolas Bardo, who takes some happy snaps of Laure which end up plastered all over town. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with some bizarre situations played out end over end until the finale. There’s Stamos leaving the bath water running too long, Banderas playing a brilliant gay man (is there something you’re not telling us, Antonio?) and an inevitable large dose of Stamos half-nakedness. Trust me, you’ll want to be paying attention to everything, not just Rebecca in her birthday suit.

Many critics have mentioned the relatively contrived nature of the plot. And they’re right. With such a twisted sequence of events you can almost get away with pulling a few coincidences here and there, changing the story to suit the overall direction. But there are definitely a few elements of the story which help to carry it forward and maintain the intrigue. Many of the scenes use trademark De Palma techniques; brooding visuals, wonky camera angles and split screen conventions are put to good use here, particularly when it all comes together towards the end. In this case most of the trickery isn’t really vindicated until the final act, which risks making a hell of a lot of viewers rather angry yet triumphantly turns it the opposite way, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.

Let’s face it, Romijn-Stamos isn’t much of an actress, but she’s one hell of a beauty, which is basically the main thrust of her character, pardon the pun. She would have worked pretty hard, too, appearing in basically the whole film and being asked to do some strange sort things throughout. Banderas is a surprise as the lowly photographer who chases her around France, camera in hand. His versatility as an actor is highlighted well here, which is a far cry from B-grade schlock like Spy Kids 2. The rest of the cast takes a back seat but for the most part they move the action along without really getting in the way. The two crossed thieves are an ugly looking duo but fit De Palma’s style to a tea.

Femme Fatale

Again, it’s hard to figure out what to make of all this. Even I’m not too sure how effective the whole piece is despite a couple of viewings. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though, as surely someone like De Palma has enough talent to leave a little ambiguity in his work and let the audience decide how to take it, even if it’s definitely not one of his best. This is well worth checking out but trying to gauge audience reaction is like trying to figure out some of the strange plot twists before the finale.

Video
Warner have pulled a gem out of their pockets with this one. None of their usual Pan & Scan, NTSC rubbish here, just a great looking 1.78:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer that is very easy on the eye. Colours are muted when they need to be but vibrant in the more important scenes, leading to a deliberately inconsistent visual style that suits the film very well. The transfer is incredibly sharp right across the board, with terrific detail in even the trickiest French landscapes. Those with a very keen eye might spot the odd bit of dirt on the print here and there and a touch of edge enhancement during a couple of scenes, but really that’s being far too picky with what is a great looking picture. Anyway, you’ll be trying to figure out what the hell is going on rather than worrying about a couple of specks popping up along the way.

Audio
To be honest I didn’t really expect all that much from the soundtrack. What we get is a great little Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that makes perfect use of the surrounds to achieve the desired effect. Ambient sounds are bounced around the rears, the score calls upon the sub-woofer and belts out of every speaker, while the dialogue is clear at all times despite Antonio Banderas’ best attempts to make us turn the subtitle track on. The score is possibly the greatest feature of the soundtrack. It is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who helmed the orchestral pieces on Donald Cammell’s Wild Side) and really does add a lot to the visuals. Overall, a very well-rounded audio mix for this release.

Femme Fatale

Extras
Thankfully the audio and video excellence is backed up by a few extra features to keep us amused (and reviewers like typing). Sadly, De Palma doesn’t explain what the hell went on with a commentary track but there’s enough in here to satisfy most. First up is a series of featurettes, the first of which is entitled Visualizing Femme Fatale. De Palma begins by telling us that “a femme fatale is a sexy bad girl”. Why wasn’t the film that simple?

The next featurette, called Femme Fatale: An Appreciation, is initially a breakdown of the film festival opening, with interviews and clips from the movie playing over the top. We then move on to Banderas’ first entrance and the motivations behind the location. For such a long featurette it almost makes up for not having a De Palma commentary on the disc.

The last of the featurettes is entitled Dressed To Kill and is basically only a montage of Romijn-Stamos looking sexy in all her costumes. Running for just under two minutes, teenage boys might get a kick out of this one.

The behind the scenes section carries on from the previous featurettes and gives us more from De Palma, Romijn-Stamos and others. We find out how Laura Ash was cast and take a look at some more behind the scenes material. There are still a large number of clips from the film which we’ve already seen by now but there’s still some value in this five minute piece.

Moving on there’s the theatrical trailer, which bursts onto your screen in a (very loud) attempt at gaining your attention. It actually makes a lot more sense of the film than the film itself, so for that reason it is pretty effective. We also get the French trailer, a very different kind of trailer which makes use of fast-motion and all the sexiness in the film packed into a couple of minutes. An interesting piece which would most definitely have turned away American audiences had it been used in the states.

That rounds out the extras package, which may seem a little light on but the depth of the featurettes save it from being disappointing. A few more additions and we might have had ourselves a very impressive disc overall, but the supplements let the side down a little in the end.

Femme Fatale

Overall
Bizarre but definitely worth a look. It’s not so much crazy in terms of plot as it is convoluted and deliberately confusing. Repeated viewings will reveal more and more, which is the sign of a film that at the very least can give you value for money. The audio and video sections are a real surprise, while the extras are light on but still have some value. Hard to say what you may think of the film, but at least you’ve got a good little package should you think it’s a winner.


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