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De Palma returns
to his roots with
'Femme Fatale'

November 14, 2002
By Franklin Harris

"Femme Fatale" opens with a 20-minute heist sequence that few directors would attempt. It boldly announces that Brian De Palma is back.

De Palma didn't really go away, but some of his recent films — "Mission to Mars," anyone? — made moviegoers wish he had. With "Femme Fatale," however, De Palma again delivers a trashy, suspenseful thriller of the sort he elevated to an art form with "Dressed to Kill," "Body Double" and "Blow Out."

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in Warner Brothers' ''Femme Fatale.''
Photo © Copyright Warner Bros.
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in Warner Brothers' ''Femme Fatale.''
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos stars as Laure Ash, if that is her real name. When we first see her, she is watching television — "Double Indemnity" starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck — the scene were Stanwyck's character tells MacMurray's that she is "rotten to the heart."

Already we feel sorry for any poor sap who falls for Laure. She is cold. She is beautiful. And she is rotten to the heart, too.

In a scene that is as much seduction as it is larceny, Laure steals $10 million in diamonds from a half-naked supermodel at the Cannes Film Festival. Then she double-crosses her partners and skips town with the jewels.

But Laure's double-cross is just the first turn the movie takes. De Palma is playing with us and with Laure.

While on the run, Laure is mistaken for a woman named Lili, who might as well be her twin sister. (Romijn-Stamos plays both roles.) And using Lili's passport, she escapes to the United States.

Here fate twists and turns again. On the airplane to America, Laure meets a wealthy diplomat, played by Peter Coyote. Seven years later and still pretending to be Lili, she is back in France, married to the newly appointed United States ambassador.

Naturally, with her former partners still on the loose, Laure wants to maintain a low profile, but that is impossible, especially with the paparazzi out to snap a picture of the secretive wife of the new American ambassador.

The photographer who exposes Laure is Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas). Nicolas isn't a bad guy. He is just a down-on-his-luck photographer with bills to pay. He is the audience's sympathetic eye into Laure's world. Of course, that also makes him a perfect patsy. (You guessed it; Nicolas is the poor sap.)

From here we have all the makings of a typical thriller: Laure has ex-partners to avoid, a husband to keep in the dark and a photographer following her every move. But De Palma isn't through tossing plot twists at us. The biggest is yet to come.

"Femme Fatale" is the sort of pure filmmaking De Palma does best. His camerawork glides from shot to shot, effortlessly following characters as if dancing with them. Although he is often compared to Alfred Hitchcock, and not without good reason, De Palma is equally influenced by Italian director Dario Argento. De Palma is the one American filmmaker who has mastered the style of the Italian "giallo" thriller. For films like De Palma's at their best, the style is the substance.

Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, who shot "The Messenger" and "The Fifth Element" for director Luc Besson, beautifully captures De Palma's vision on film.

As for the cast, both Banderas and Coyote are fine in their supporting roles, but it falls to Romijn-Stamos, the femme fatale, to carry the film. And, for the most part, she does.

Romijn-Stamos is not a great line reader. In fact, when she repeats Stanwyck's line about being rotten to the heart, you almost cannot help but laugh. But she is wonderful at acting with her eyes. Without speaking, she never lets us forget that Laure is always plotting, always trying to stay one step ahead.

It is to the movie and Romijn-Stamos' benefit that much of "Femme Fatale" is wordless. The players are always in motion, and they don't have time for talk.

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