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Femme Fatale

Though Peter Biskind's tell-all book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls spends a lot of time talking about the wunderkinds of '70s filmmaking — Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg — one of the more fascinating elements of the film-school generation that Biskind almost totally ignored was the new wave of "B" filmmakers — those who were happy making the sort of genre pictures that helmers like Sam Fuller and Andre De Toth were grinding out in the '50s. This was a new breed as well, comprising such talents as Walter Hill, John Carpenter, George Romero, and Brian De Palma. They never tried to take their personal interests and transform them into something worth Oscar hardware, instead choosing to toil away their entire careers simply creating the films they themselves would want to see on the big screen. Unfortunately for all of them, they have become the renegades, the smugglers, and the iconoclasts — their hard work often results in movies that, more often than not, fail to find a mainstream audience. One could simply argue that none of the above are "sell-outs," and De Palma might be in better straits had Pauline Kael not retired. But the '90s were a cruel decade to this breed, and for De Palma especially — one of his better works (Snake Eyes) was hampered by the re-shoot process, and his big-budget sci-fi effort Mission to Mars flopped. Thankfully, Femme Fatale (2002) is a return to the director's Hitchcockian roots, toying with some of his favorite themes to great effect. Double-crossing her partners after a bravura $10 million diamond heist at the Cannes Film Festival, Laura Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) finds herself having to get out of France — badly. She tries to get a passport, but one of her partners finds her and nearly kills her. Laura is then found by a grieving family who mistake her for their daughter Lily. It's when the real Lily comes back to the family home to kill herself that Laura steals her passport, and her identity. What she didn't expect was that she would meet Watts (Peter Coyote) on the plane ride back to America and fall in love. Seven years later, Laura returns to Paris with her husband, but shies away from the press (fearing reprisals from her old gang). The press, however, are hard to avoid — her husband has become an ambassador. Yet ace paparazzi photographer Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) finds himself drawn into Laura's world of intrigue; he gets a photo of her, only to become immersed in her crosses and double-crosses as she seeks to finally seize the money from the diamond heist.

*          *          *

Without question, Femme Fatale is Brian De Palma preaching to the converted. The film is a collection of his favorite ideas about movies (the title alone is telling) with a twist ending that is guaranteed to annoy as many viewers as it thrills. If you're along for the De Palma ride, you'll find much to enjoy here with his brilliant sense of camera placement, split screens, Dutch angles, and an opening sequence with a nearly wordless 20-minute heist — Laura literally strips a model (Rie Rasmussen) of her jewels. All the while, Ryuichi Sakamoto's score riffs on Ravel's "Bolero." If it's your sort of thing, you'll have no complaints. However, those who are lukewarm (or less) on the le auteur terrible probably will find this effort to be a pastiche of ideas from Hitchcock that De Palma has been grafting as long as he's been behind a lens. That said, it's not hard to be on De Palma's side here — he is engaged with his ideas and seems to be wrestling with his own filmography and concerns (as David Lynch did in the similar Mulholland Dr.). With so many new movies that come across like filmed sitcoms, it's nice to watch a film by a director who knows how to use a camera, and — above all else — De Palma remains captivated by the entire filmmaking process. He ensures his audience is provoked, and he's armed with the cinematic know-how to make this material work. We can only hope he remains a smuggler for some time yet. Warner's DVD release of Femme Fatale presents the film in an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a standard behind-the-scenes spot (4 min.), but it is surpassed by two documentaries from Laurent Bouzereau: "Visualizing Femme Fatale" (11 min.) and "Femme Fatale: An Appreciation" (23 min.) — both are thorough efforts, interviewing De Palma, Romijn-Stamos, Banderas, Coyote, director of photography Thierry Arbogast, composer Sakamoto, and on-set photographer Bart De Palma (the director's brother). Rounding out the package is a collection of scenes and stills, as well as the American and French trailers. Snap-case.

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