(ed. note: Review contains Spoilers
My girlfriend is going to be jealous. Because today I fell in love. With Brian DePalma. Brian and I have been seeing each other off and on for several years. Our first date was with The Untouchables
, when I was an immature, impressionable kid of 13. He was good enough that we decided to deepen our relationship, as I then chose to see him on several occasions: Carrie, Dressed To Kill, Blowout, Scarface, Casualties of War, Raising Cain
, etc. I knew things were turning serious, however, when I saw Carlito’s Way
in 1993. Finally I realized how much I truly cared for this man. Love was in the cards.
Then came Mission: Impossible
in 1996, and now that I was 21 and in grad school, I was ready for a commitment to a filmmaker, and DePalma showed me he had the goods. When I learned that he’d been seeing several other people, none of whom understood Mission: Impossible
, I realized our relationship was special. Some said he was stupid and mainstream (ridiculous), some said he was confusing (not if you pay attention), and others just ignored his advances. I didn’t. M:I
was his best film. Sure, our relationship had its rocky moments. We argued about Obsession
, we don’t speak about the Bonfire
days, and we even nearly broke up over Mission To Mars
, though a second viewing made me understand that he was a torn man, still a genius, but struggling with some other issues. He was generous, so I gave him another chance.
Cut to today, November 6, 2002. We started things off at 2:30pm PST, when I listened to DePalma do a 30-minute interview with the insufferable Elvis Mitchell on NPR. No matter. Brian was characteristically brilliant and modest. He didn’t talk much about Femme Fatale
(and today was opening day of it in commercial release) except to ruin one of the twists and mention his inspiration. Mainly he talked about Paris, about movies in general, about how great film festivals are, how few directors really like to watch other movies, and about how much he likes shooting outside the States. I think back to his last few movies and realize they take place in Prague, London, Langley, Atlantic City, and outer space. He hasn’t shot in Hollywood since Body Double
… or is it Bonfire
Mitchell gets DePalma to say some extremely provocative things about the way we understand and read cinema, the way politics in film culture has changed, and the way his own films have reflected the times -- both culturally and politically. And sexually. Now I’m foaming at the mouth even more to see Femme Fatale
. But I have work to do -- scripts to read, a friend to drive to the airport tomorrow morning at 6am. But I put off plans for two hours and catch the matinee.
Brian and I arrange to meet each other at the Mann National theater in Westwood at 4:30. A few others come along for the ride. Not many. The lights dim, then I proceed to fall in love. DePalma begins his film with a characteristically long take that sells me completely. A television is showing Double Indemnity
, starring classic femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, and a faceless, leggy model (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, in a surprisingly adequate, but not exceptional, performance) is watching naked from the bed. Staring into the TV, where their two faces merge, the woman is greeted by a black man who proceeds to lay out the plan for the next 30 minutes -- a sequence that stands with any number of the greatest heist sequences in film history: Rififi, Topkapi, The Pink Panther, Heat
, and DePalma’s own bravura Langley sequence in Mission: Impossible
During this improbably beautiful and brilliantly directed first act, DePalma sets up the signifiers and symbols that will make up the musical details of the film’s thematic melody. Serpentine designs that first become the $10 million bra on a director’s girlfriend (a director who, in a movie about dreams and nightmares, suffers his own worst living nightmare when the power goes out at Cannes exactly when his title card is up on the screen) and then a laser device worming through a security hole (in a typically sexual image), and later turn into the security gates on the American embassy in Paris. Overflowing water imagery that starts in a bathtub, moves to an aquarium, and then to countless water glasses. A clock shows the time is 3:33, and then during a very long dream sequence, every clock in the frame (placed perfectly for the eye to see, of course) will show 3:33 and it makes perfect sense. We see the title “Seven Years Later” twice, and the hotel room numbers (214), a room used twice, adds up to seven. But the most intriguing visual metaphor is the blurring of one image onto another. Not just Stanwyck and the femme fatale, but a poster (with more overflowing water imagery) that says Deja Vue
(almost too obvious a wink at the twist) draped behind a window showing the reflection of a woman portraying another woman who is posing as a third woman.
The movie is first and foremost about movies. It’s about the creative process, spending its ingenious final shot on the work of art produced by male lead Antonio Banderas (doing his best film to date), a work that shows how what we capture on film can make us fall in love, and how what we fall in love with can inspire us to work. This not only extends to Banderas’s career, but to DePalma’s -- who with Femme Fatale
has left the Hollywood studio system to make what’s virtually an independent film distributed thankfully by Warner Brothers. There are references to other DePalma movies, who are themselves references to Hitchcock or French New Wave films. It may be an isolated universe, but it’s a universe that understands how images can tell a story, often without words… how words can contradict what we see (note the inception of this motif in the misunderstood but shockingly great monologue in M:I
when Cruise tells Voight one thing and means the exact opposite) and can sometimes fail to capture what we really mean.
But rather than just stick to a movie movie, DePalma has also fashioned a really suspenseful thriller -- albeit one that’s unabashedly sleazy and raw -- that manages to twist the film noir genre into something with an existential skeleton and a happy ending. The russian roulette suicide sequence is a nail-biter; the entire heist is a heart-stopper; and the climax where every character comes together is absurdly cool. You have no idea what’s going to happen, but when it does it makes perfect sense. Ultimately, the movie contradicts the film noir idea that we’re all doomed to bad fate (a motif DePalma exploits in Carlito’s Way
by beginning the movie with Carlito’s death at the end of the story) by showing its femme fatale not only get the guy, but make decisions (to be nice, to save a life, to do the right thing) that yield positive consequences. In the time we have before we expire, and before the final frame of our lives flickers through the projector, we can make the decisions that affect everything else. We don’t have to wait for the camera to capture us. We can capture it.
If Femme Fatale
is the best thing Brian DePalma has ever done, then it’s also a de facto fuck you to movies that try similar things and fail miserably. This movie delivers an old school beat down to Mulholland Drive
(I know this paragraph will lose me some readers), a movie that also attempts to show a dream world with visual metaphors that tie together through strange logic and female body doubles. But DePalma’s camera is so assured and lyrical, we notice how inept David Lynch is at tying together story lines, at creating sequences that feel organic when edited together (save for the one decent scene, Watts’s audition), and at coming up with philosophical ideas that mean something. Lynch’s posing, pretentious dreck suckered in plenty of people into loving it, but I’m not one of them. I think Femme Fatale
speaks loud and clear that a movie can be about movies, about dreams, about identity, and still hold together as an entertaining experience that rewards the viewer for intelligent, hard work rather than punishing the viewer for attempting to solve a puzzle that has no answer.
This isn’t to say Mulholland Drive
and Femme Fatale
are mutually exclusive loves. Most people, and most cineastes, will like them both. And no one should take my extreme minority viewpoint on Lynch to mean they should discount what I’m saying about DePalma. Femme Fatale
is the best American movie of 2002 because it thrills us with the possibilities of what cinema can say. DePalma is fluent in a language that few of us can speak. And to see the language expressed like this is to be captive to a one-of-a-kind master. That’s why I love Brian. He talks to me with an art form that feels right with every cut (or blink of an eye) and he never condescends. I despise and strongly disagree with Armond White’s notoriously bone-headed remark that anyone who dislikes Mission To Mars
not only doesn’t understand movies, but doesn’t even like them. It’s a statement that shouldn’t be made about any film, let alone one of the worst in DePalma’s canon. But I can understand what it is about Brian that made White passionate enough to dream up a remark like that. Brian has a way of seducing you with his camera so that you’re drunk on the love of cinema and want to share that sensation with everyone else on the planet.