A soap-opera quality twist in the last 20 minutes of Brian De Palma's erotic noir thriller "Femme Fatale" almost puts the kibosh on what is otherwise a sumptuous work of B-movie imagination.
From its complex, spectacularly executed and near-silent opening-act heist -- in which a beautiful, sexy, icy-tough thief (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) lifts a diamond-encrusted, barely-there bustier off a director's arm-candy date at the Cannes Film Festival -- to the anti-heroine's later seduction and set-up of an unsuspecting Paris paparazzi (Antonio Banderas) for her own kidnapping, this picture is an engrossingly elaborate and stylish affair.
Romijn-Stamos gives a highly charged, chameleonic performance as Laure, an American con artist who is forced to disappear after the jewelry pinch goes bad and she double-crosses her partners in the crime. Mistaken, in a far-fetched coincidence, for a young widow (also played by Romijn-Stamos) who is suicidal over the deaths of her husband and daughter, she swipes her look-alike's passport, posses as a French girl and meets a multi-millionaire (Peter Coyote) on a flight to America.
Seven years later she's back in Paris as the rich man's wife when he's appointed as a U.S. ambassador, and all it takes is one photo of her in the tabloids before her old associates are out to kill her. Why the tabloids care about pictures of an ambassador's wife isn't clear, but Laure's plan for escape requires the unwitting collusion of the photographer who took said picture, and the poor guy has no idea what kind of sexual and psychological manipulation he's in for.
"Femme Fatale" is a gorgeous, stimulating brain- and libido-teaser complete with deliciously heady sex scenes, tangible but enigmatic symbolism (Is that really Laure's face that wisks by on advertising kiosks all over Paris? What does it mean?) and several surprises. It's also a slick and wildly imaginative cinematic experience, every bit as voluptuous as its leading lady. De Palma employs some of his favorite visual techniques (split screen, tracking shots, perspective shots, extreme slow-motion) with terrific, tension-mounting results, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Bolero"-like score lends the film a wonderfully moody opulence that is perfectly in sync with the succulent performances of its stars.
Former model Romijn-Stamos ("X-Men," "Rollerball") is a revelation in the title role, showing unexpected range as her savvy character adopts personalities and accents to suit several situations (not to mention her short but pivotal performance as the inconsolable widow). And although she towers over him, the star has real heat with Banderas, who is more enticing as the hapless (but certainly not helpless) photographer than he's been in anything since "The Mask of Zorro."
But just as De Palma crashed and burned after 45 minutes of near-genius in 1998's "Snake Eyes," the writer-director's Big Twist in this film rips so many holes in the plot that after all the cerebral stimulation, it may be hard to not feel let down by the finale. "Femme Fatale" retains a three-star rating from me, but only because up to that point it is so sensationally engrossing that it's still a must-see, even if the ending is ruined by such sheer hokum that it cuts the movie's intelligence quotient by half.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 6th November 2002
Box Office USA: $6.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $16.8M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Quinta Communications, Epsilon Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Fresh: 64 Rotten: 70
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Rebecca Romijn as Laure/lily, Antonio Banderas as Nicolas Bardo, Peter Coyote as Watts, Rie Rasmussen as Veronica, Gregg Henry as Shiff, Eriq Ebouaney as Black Tie, Édouard Montoute as Racine, Thierry Frémont as Serra, Fiona Curzon as Stanfield Phillips, Daniel Milgram as Pierre, Jean-Marc Minéo as Seated Guard, Salvatore Ingoglia as Truck Driver, Bart De Palma as Power Room Guard, Sandrine Bonnaire as Herself, Régis Wargnier as Himself, Gilles Jacob as Himself, Jean Chatel as Cannes Commentator, Eva Darlan as Irma
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