It is not a secret that I love classical American cinema, and especially film noir. Speaking of film noir inevitably leads me to the subject of the “femme fatale”, which warrants an inevitable conversation on women full stop. I will not be discussing Brian de Palma’s movie “Femme Fatale” but rather the very idea of the femme fatale, which spans the seventh art.
The femme fatale is a well-identified archetype in the cinematographic category of the film noir: the femme fatale is intelligent, beautiful, seductive and inexorably pulls the male hero towards his destiny (which is why she is “fatal”, from Latin fatalis, fatum: fate – don’t thank me, I studied ancient Greek at school) – the destiny often being a somber one.
The archetype of the femme fatal is fascinating in light of women’s place in society since the dawn of time. Indeed, the femme fatale can easily be found in Antiquity or the New Testament (I am thinking of Helen of Troy, whose beauty triggered a war, or Salomé, who, after her dance of the seven veils, asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter), in literature (I am thinking of Morgan the Fay in the Arthurian cycle or Madame de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons) and espionage (I am obviously thinking of Mata Hari).
Cinema has been reproducing an archetype which began forming with Eve in the garden of Eden. Eve, the temptress, she who ate the forbidden fruit, gave it to Adam and thus had them expelled from the garden of Eden (these are the broad strokes of the story of our collective Catholic subconscious – however, this text is not meant to be a biblical exegesis). Eve is the primary archetype, the matrix of what would become the femme fatal of the 7th art: she exercised her free-will, committed reprehensible acts and her powers of seduction led a man to his downfall.
These are exactly the characteristics of the cinematographic femme fatale, who was born on screen around 1940, in the midst of a world war and therefore during a refocusing of the population (American, in this case) on families and especially, the harmless mother.
The femme fatale is the contrary of the mother: she rarely has attachments and if she happens to be married, her marriage is a failure and she does not have children – first and foremost, everything about her screams danger. When the mother offers an image of stability, of reassurance, devotion, security without any sexual or mental dimension, the femme fatale irresistibly attracts the male hero with her beauty, intelligence, sexual power and charisma, an ensemble that is at once worrying and fatal.
In some rare cases, she can be ill (“Leave Her to Heaven”), or plagued with family tragedy (“Chinatown”) but she remains fascinating nonetheless.
The femme fatale has her own agenda, pursues her own objectives and they generally do not have anything to do with the general interest or the more modest interests of her family. She is smart, manipulative and gives herself all the means to achieve her ends. These ends can be financial (“Out of The Past”), emotional (“Leave Her to Heaven”), or egotistical (“Basic Instinct”).
Cinema has always treated her with ambivalence. The femme fatale is the one we love to hate: the hero may be obsessed but so are we. The men around her are often not the most loveable characters: they are often violent, possessive, selfish, cruel and consider the femme fatale as one of their properties – which pushes said femme fatal to somber extremes (“Gilda”, “La Dame de Shanghai”).
This may explain why the femme fatale sometimes had the title-role, I am thinking of “Laura”, “Gilda”, “The Lady from Shanghai” or “Leave Her To Heaven”.
She is never just an accessory in the story. On the contrary, she is often at the center of the plot. She induces obsession (“Laura”, “Basic Instinct”). Surreal or inaccessible (the scene on the cliff in “The Lady from Shanghai”, “Gilda” on stage), she often appears in a halo of light, surrounded by darkness, as in “Out Of The Past” – or, even better, on a painting (“Laura”).
Often, she wears white (“Out Of The Past”, “The Lady from Shanghai”, “Leave Her To Heaven”, “Basic Instinct”), and her angelism (“Angel Face”, “Out Of The Past”) tends to hide the darkest shades of black.
The femme fatale of American cinema is a character that may appear somber but she is treated in an ambivalent way, and is not portrayed as one thing. She is often complex and ambiguous. She presents us with the figure of a strong woman, of a quasi-feminist in her desire to exercise her freedom and to transcend masculine domination. Laura – the only altruistic incarnation of the femme fatale wishes to detach herself from any masculine domination by working so hard that she surpasses the master, who cannot bear it. Her fatale sisters, however, do not have the same opportunities and must use more radical means.
For as long as cinema has been cinema, the public has known, has adored this ambiguity and has often been won over by the femmes fatales offered on screen.
(Now, I wrote all of this just to tell you that socio-cinematographic transgressions on the femme fatale in the 7th art were born from a photo-shoot during which I was neither very cooperative or with it. Everything is possible).
Max Mara coat – Chanel sunglasses – Roland Mouret dress – Armani heels