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"FEMME FATALE"
(2002) (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense/Thriller: An alluring thief goes on the run after double-crossing her partners and must then deal with a former paparazzo who may have blown her new cover.
PLOT:
Laure Ash (REBECCA ROMIJN-STAMOS) is an alluring thief who's plotting a daring jewelry heist at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival with her partners, Black Tie (ERIQ EBOUANEY) and Racine (EDOUARD MONTOUTE). The plan is for Laure to seduce Veronica (RIE RASMUSSEN), one of the attendees, and replace her various diamond-studded accouterments with fake duplicates.

When a security official interrupts the heist, things turn violent and Laure hits the road with the diamonds. She thinks she's double-crossed the others, but another encounter with Racine ends up with her being thrown down into an atrium where she's knocked unconscious. An older couple who's followed her then mistakes her for their grieving daughter, Lily, who's recently lost her husband and child.

Laure then decides to adopt that woman's identity and head for America when she meets Watts (PETER COYOTE), a sympathetic American government worker. She thinks she's made a clean getaway, but seven years later, she returns as Watt's wife when he's made the American Ambassador to France.

It's then and there that former paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (ANTONIO BANDERAS) is assigned to get photos of the little seen wife. His actions eventually involve Serra (THIERRY FREMONT), a local French police inspector, Leonard Shiff (GREGG HENRY), head of Watts' security, and Black Tie and Racine who still want their diamonds.

From that point on, Laure/Lily sets an elaborate plan into motion that she hopes will take care of her various problems and predicaments.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
A femme fatale is described as a woman of great seductive charm who leads men into compromising or dangerous situations. Throughout the ages, there have been literal and fictional examples of such people, although the ones in movies are probably better known and remembered than their real-life counterparts.

Then there are the figurative femmes fatales comprised of any number of inanimate things that have the same effect on men. For some it's drugs, others fall prey to fast cars and for filmmaker Brian De Palma, it's trying to make films that match up with those of the masters.

If there's been one major complaint about the director, it's that he's so obsessed with paying homage to and/or borrowing from the likes of Hitchcock, Eisenstein and others that he rarely comes off as original to critics and film aficionados. While everyday viewers probably won't notice or care about that, such obsession often shortchanges other parts or the entireties of his films.

Such is the case with "Femme Fatale." Although De Palma has tried his hand at various genres - sometimes with success ("The Untouchables," "Carrie") and sometimes without it ("Snake Eyes," "Mission To Mars") - it's the erotic thriller that could be his personal Siren. Following in the footsteps of "Body Double" and "Dressed to Kill," his latest effort similarly involves sex, violence and obsession. The result is a mixed bag that contains both terrific and mediocre to bad elements.

Whether successes or failures, most of the filmmaker's efforts have one thing in common and that is that they usually contain exceptional individual scenes. This film is no exception as the opening sequence is a dazzler (after a questionable bit of having the protagonist watch "Double Indemnity").

Set to Ravel's increasingly urgent "Bolero," it focuses on the three main jewel thieves as they set their plan into motion. With sparse dialogue, the sequence unfolds over several minutes in a mesmerizing fashion and builds up expectations - like the beginning of "Snake Eyes" - that the rest of the film can't meet.

Then there's the way the film looks. If anything, De Palma has near always had a mesmerizing way of visualizing the story and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ("Kiss of the Dragon," "The Professional") is a perfect match for him. There's no denying that the film looks terrific and casts a hypnotic spell over the viewer simply from the way it looks.

Unfortunately, the film's titular subject does not have the same effect and that's a fault of both the script - penned by De Palma - and the performance of the lead actress. Reportedly originally intended for Uma Thurman until her pregnancy pretty much eliminated the physical appearance needed for the part, the role went to Rebecca Romijn-Stamos ("Rollerball," "X-Men").

While the model turned actress certainly has the looks, body and sexy moves for the part, she simply doesn't pull off the more important aspect of the character, and that's the personality. Simply put, and beyond the physical attributes, she doesn't exude enough alluring danger to make the character work. De Palma's stilted and occasionally hokey dialogue, character motivations and plot developments don't help matters, thereby unnecessarily restricting any actress' ability to bring credible life to the character.

Some, of course, will argue that a certain plot twist near the end of the film explains or justifies some of what occurs and how the character is played. While there's some validity to that point - no, she doesn't realize she's dead ala "The Sixth Sense," rather you should imagine an older and overused TV convention - the credibility of the character and her persona are pivotal for a story like this. Accordingly, if anything's off-kilter or out of place, then the effect is ruined, and that's the case here.

Playing opposite her as the dupe lured into her trap is Antonio Banderas ("Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," "Original Sin"). Due to the ripple-down problems with the portrait and portrayal of the femme fatale, it's hard to buy into his character falling for her and her ploy. As a result, most everything about their interaction - including the requisite steamy scenes - feels mechanical and contrived.

Peter Coyote ("A Walk to Remember," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial") appears as the oblivious husband and ambassador, while Eriq Ebouaney ("My Wife is an Actress," "Lumumba") and Edouard Montoute ("Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra," "Mortels") are appropriately menacing as angry, double-crossed villains. Yet, they're pretty much one-dimensional at best which also holds true for Rie Rasmussen (making her debut) who's most notable for her attire (or lack thereof) and bathroom stall lip-lock scene with Romijn-Stamos.

Although I can appreciate what De Palma is trying to do with the twisty story and where he's trying to take it and make everything pay off, it comes off feeling like a calculated imitation of the more intriguing "Mulholland Drive," what with its double characters and untrustworthy reality.

While it has some good to decent moments and looks terrific from a visual sense, it doesn't seem likely that this "Femme Fatale" will be luring in as many good reviews or unsuspecting viewers as it would like. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 31, 2002 / Posted November 6, 2002


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