- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

This may not be Brian De Palma Appreciation Week after all. His most famous movie, "Carrie," has been subjected to a network television remake. His return to the mystery and crime melodrama, "Femme Fatale," opening today, proves inauspicious.
Lesbian dalliance emerges as Mr. De Palma's only exploitable sideshow while he attempts to demonstrate the ruthless allure of a dishy deceiver named Laure Ash, impersonated in a handful of disguises by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, the imposing model who graced "X-Men."
She remains a photogenic distraction as long as her untrained voice is cleverly subordinated to sultry postures.
Miss Romijn-Stamos first appears as a blurry reflection in a television monitor, watching the showdown sequence of "Double Indemnity." The French subtitles are a clue to her locale and to the movie's frequent resort to French dialogue with English subtitles. Reclining topless, with her loins demurely covered by satiny sheets, the aspiring troublemaker is watching Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a hotel room in Cannes during the 2001 edition of the annual film festival.
Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a short-tempered, French-speaking black man in formal attire. Portrayed by Eriq Ebouaney, he remains nameless but snarls at the occupant for watching TV. He reminds her, a tad pedantically if you ask me, of the caper that evidently has brought them to Cannes. A parting slap punctuates his dressing-down.
Dressed up and adorned with a press pass that identifies her as Laure Ash, the lovely layabout is next seen as a press photographer, concentrating on a starlet named Veronica (a long-stemmed Danish model, Rie Rasmussen) who enters with the VIPs attending a screening of a legit movie, Regis Warnier's "East-West," with Mr. Warnier presiding.
Veronica's breasts and midriff are encircled and traversed by a serpent-shaped ornament supposedly studded with a fortune in diamonds. Indeed, she is such a provocative treasure that two bodyguards are at her side to protect the costly halter.
Well, sort of. They don't prevent Laure from catching the eye of the wearer and whispering in her ear. Veronica pleads a detour to the ladies' room before the screening. There Laure awaits, intent on a quickie, stand-up assignation that allows her confederate or boss, the angry black man, to slip into the same bathroom and collect the bauble from the floor after it has been removed by Laure's roving hands.
Suffice it to say that there are other confederates, that their timing is meant to be diabolically precise and that this set piece has little internal validity and logic, as spectators will realize upon reflection or when they catch it a second time on cable TV or home video.
For the sake of the rest of the movie, though, we're meant to believe that Laure makes a clean getaway while the angry black man is left severely wounded on the bathroom floor.
The scene shifts to a split-screen introduction of Antonio Banderas as a photographer, Nicolas Bardo. (What a coincidence and why not a man spelled Bardot if there's no phonetic difference?) Idly focusing and snapping from his terrace in the Paris district of Belleville, Nicolas is intrigued by an enigmatic pair of women who meet and exchange something or other on a plaza that fronts a cathedral.
Our leading lady is one of these women. She is concealing her original blondness with a brunette wig. She enters the cathedral, an apparent interloper at a funeral service. She flees, pursued by a couple who identify her as Lili. She escapes to a Sheraton hotel, where a stealthy entrance into Room 214 leads to apparent calamity: She is heaved over the railing of an interior courtyard by a second angry black man, possibly a confederate with a vindictive streak.
A remarkable soft landing leads to rescue by the concerned couple from the church service; they tuck her into a residence they seem to regard as her own. To help clear the cobwebs (hers, not ours), Miss Romijn-Stamos loses the wig and luxuriates in a bubble bath. She drifts off with the water running. The tub overflows. Someone else enters, a distraught young woman, evidently the real Lili. She proceeds to drown her sorrows by playing Russian roulette, while her aquarium mysteriously overflows in mimicry of the tub.
The upshot of this pivotal puzzling encounter is that the fugitive Laure trades in her identity for that of the despairing Lili. This switch brings Laure in contact with a future consort, Peter Coyote as a wealthy American named Bruce Watts. After a seven-year leap in continuity, he is the U.S. ambassador to France. The former Laure Ash is now Mrs. Watts a camera-shy Mrs. Watts, curiously enough.
By a fabulous stroke of coincidence, Mr. Banderas, still at the same residence and profession, contracts to steal a candid photo of the new ambassador's spouse. The ruse couldn't be less clever if Mr. De Palma spent months agonizing over it.
Her cover supposedly blown when the photo surfaces on the cover of a tabloid, the lady endeavors to ensnare a cooperatively slow-witted Nicolas in a kidnapping and extortion scheme, which requires side trips to a boulevard of sex shops and a roughneck bar with red lighting and an ominous male clientele, all supposedly fixated on shamelessly teasing Laure perhaps because none of the guys seems to have a female date of his own. It's as if they never heard that another sex existed. Nevertheless, this state of confusion offers Mr. De Palma a livid opportunity to show Miss Romijn-Stamos tantalizing one lout in order to get Mr. Banderas all worked up.
During the extortion runaround, the anti-heroine also doubles back to Room 214, one of several reminders that the plot is predicated on double-crosses, bogus identities and doubling-back fake-outs. Indeed, the entire film is a fake-out loop, weakened by the fact that all the deceptions are really aimed at the audience. They have nothing to do with deceptions that characters might need to confound one another or might be compelled to attempt as a consequence of overpowering greed and lust, the bedrock motives that rationalize crime stories such as "Double Indemnity."
The absence of any plausible fictional urgency reduces "Femme Fatale" to embroidery work. It has been quite a while since a De Palma set piece has uncoiled with dreamlike suspense and surprise, but he keeps struggling to orchestrate a doozy throughout this tedious and ludicrous thriller. One is left with a prolonged sinking feeling and a few pointers. Specifically, avoid dozing in the tub or letting the water overflow.
Oversights of that kind lead to movies as waterlogged as "Femme Fatale." Certain De Palma prejudices also tend to jump out of the tub at you: He's a softie when it comes to statuesque lesbians but unforgiving when it comes to French-speaking black thugs.

*1/2

TITLE: "Femme Fatale"
RATING: R (Fleeting nudity and frequent sexual allusions, including a brief interlude of simulated intercourse; occasional profanity and graphic violence)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Brian De Palma. Cinematography by Thierry Arbogast. Production design by Anne Pritchard. Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Considerable dialogue in French with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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