Brian De Palma's new film, "Femme Fatale," is a passionate film buff's valentine to the two directors he loves most: Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma.
The film that this worship has inspired is pretty amusing when the director apes Hitchcock, and pretty awful when he apes himself.
On the principle that nothing succeeds like excess, the movie opens with its best sequence, a completely over-the-top heist narrative in which a team of professional thieves tries to strip a comely actress of the millions of dollars of jewels she is wearing (which is practically all she's wearing). However, the setting isn't her apartment or a hotel room or some other easy-take venue; rather, it's the Grand Palais at the Cannes Film Festival, where the young woman is appearing on the arm of real-life director Regis Wargnier as he attends the festival screening of his film "East-West," which is, incidentally, far better than "Femme Fatale" can ever hope to be.
But the gimmick is impressive: De Palma, whose reputation in Europe is obviously a lot higher than it is here, talked the French into letting him film with the actual 2001 festival as a backdrop, and those are actual French film personalities in the background, that's the actual Grand Palais, the famous red-carpeted steps, real people smoking indoors and other astonishments and so forth and so on.
Maybe you have to have logged some time at the festival, a famous orgy of movielust, to be amused by the clever, rather mean-spirited goings-on that De Palma charts for his (and our) prurient delectation. Or maybe you just have to love beautiful women. Whatever, the prime mover in this drama is the American beauty Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who penetrates the Cannes celebration disguised as a photographer. The next move is typical of De Palma's eighth-grade sexual imagination: Evidently a lesbian, Laure whispers a come-on to the actress (Rie Rasmussen), who agrees to join her in the ladies' loo for a quickie. While there, the clever Laure strips her of the diamond-encrusted golden breastplates and passes them to a henchman in the next stall, who soundlessly replaces them with duplicates. The idea is that the actress will return to her seat unaware that she now wears fool's gold and glass, but at least she's well satisfied.
But of course it goes wrong and the end result is that the henchman -- a nasty chap well played by Eriq Ebouaney -- is nabbed, while Laure escapes unscathed with the loot. Number of words of dialogue in this first 40 minutes of film: 0. Number of words of dialogue in the next hour and 10 minutes: 4,567,231, give or take a few thousand.
It's also a remarkable sequence in that it's a director imitating himself imitating another director. More than 20 years ago in "Dressed to Kill," De Palma worked up a nearly as impressive dialogue-free half-hour (with Angie Dickinson), which was a homage to an even more brilliant dialogue-free half-hour Hitchcock created in the classic "Vertigo," when Jimmy Stewart tracked Kim Novak. That gives you some idea of "Femme Fatale's" knotted heritage, and it gets worse, with homages to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" battling homages to his own "Obsession." You need to be a film school graduate to figure out who De Palma is imitating in any given scene.
But he's not without some moves. For one, he understands what a limited actress his star is, and he contrives to keep her mouth shut for the longest time. For an interval after that, he lets her speak only in a clumsy Mitteleuropean accent, like Boris's Natasha. He does not permit her to actually "act" until about the halfway point, which pretty much destroys the illusion that this is an actual professional production.
The beautiful Romijn-Stamos also lacks one other key attribute besides talent: stature. Not in height (hers seems to be immense, soaring off legs 11 feet long), but stature as power, on the set. Thus it is true that De Palma exploits her, and she's asked to do a lot of things a more experienced actress might refuse. I'd love to see him say to Meryl Streep, "Meryl, here's the scene where you undulate topless in a black thong in a cafe full of French motorcycle thugs." La Streep would whack him so hard he'd wake up in Anne Arundel County, asking if anybody got the number of that bus.
Romijn-Stamos soldiers on, always more model (comfortable with display) than actress (uncomfortable with emotions). The plot doesn't progress arithmetically but rather it squares and cubes, becoming so dense with developments it loses all contact with the known world. It seems to have something to do with a fortuitous opportunity to take over someone else's personality and life, while only an aggressive paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) is paying attention and trying to figure out who's really who. It's so dense, that's another signpost of many saying: This is a goofy movie, not reality.
You can't say "Femme Fatale" isn't interesting, however. It's so full of astonishments, cornball revelations, succulent camerawork, vivid angles into the action and all the other candy of movies, that you forget how stupid it is. But the next morning: What a headache.
Femme Fatale (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for intense sexuality, violence and language -- in other words, the typical De Palma schmear.