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How does the contemporary femme fatale differ from the femme fatal of the 1940’s

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Of all the icons of the genre/movement/style that we have come to classify as film noir, perhaps the most memorable is the femme fatale. Her significance is all the more surprising given that this is a predominantly male world – women consistently remained subordinate to the male in film noir, both in front of and behind the camera. But the femme fatale – seductive, sexually transgressive, duplicitous – has lingered in the minds of audiences and filmmakers beyond the established close of the classic noir period.

The femme fatale is not a creation new to the film noir either. Her antecedents can be found in the Greek myths of Medusa and Pandora and the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette – women who lured men to their destruction and death. Kate Stables suggests this: ‘She is a timeless fantasy, a cross-cultural myth, but also a historical construct, whose ingredients vary according to the time and climate of her creation. ‘1

It has been argued considerably that the femme fatale of the forties and fifties arrived as a result of the upheavals of World War II and the changing roles of women, both in the home and the workplace. Theorists have often mistaken the final demise of the femme fatale – her death or prosecution – and the physical violence inflicted upon her by the men of film noir, as blatant misogyny, born from a hatred of women. I would argue though that this desire to punish, born as much from the censorship laws of the day, stems more from a fear of women than it does of hatred.

This fear finds its origins not only in the active role that women now took in the workplace (hence shifting away from the domesticity) while the male population went to war, but also in the male subconscious fear of what some have termed the ‘centre of the world’ – the vagina (an issue I will discuss in length in this essay). At a basic level, the contemporary femme fatale is freed from the constraints of the Hays code. This allows both the genre and its characters to become more overt in their use of violence and sexuality.

It also has a more fundamental significance – the corrupt and amoral do not always get punished in this modern age. So, Virginia Madsen and Don Johnson can drive away together at the end of Dennis Hopper’s The Hotspot and Uber-femme Bridget Gregory triumphs at the close of The Last Seduction without fear of repercussion. Clearer still, audience perception and production conditions have significantly changed in this era and the concerns of post-war USA do not necessarily apply at the same level anymore.

In this course of this essay I will investigate the modern role of the femme fatale, offering comparisons to her original incarnation and illustrating any significant social and cultural changes that may have affected the femme fatales position in contemporary noir. I have chosen a series of films made in the nineties that have established their noir credentials. Primarily I have chosen these specific films for their varying and often controversial interpretations of the femme fatale.

I will analyse, in depth, the multiple incarnations of the fatal women in Basic Instinct and by way of contrast, the femme fatales of The Underneath, After Dark My Sweet and Bound. Basic Instinct ‘She’s evil – she’s brilliant. ‘2 Basic Instinct begins as it means to go on – a naked, unidentified blond female, is having energetic sex with a man. She seems to be in control and holds a dominant position, astride him, eventually tying him to the bedposts. As she approaches orgasm, the blond uses an ice pick, to murder the man in a climatic eruption of blood.

The scene is visceral and clever – it sets up this tale of the female predator in the only way it can – by playing on our basest instincts… sex and survival. Basic Instinct opened in 1992 to feminist and homosexual protest. Every cinema in the major cities in the USA, were picketed by activists – outraged by the seemingly anti-gay, anti-female nature of Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay, (purchased for a then record of $3 million by Carolco). Needless to say, most of these people had not seen the film and fewer still had read the screenplay.

Though the film is presented as a mainstream sexual thriller, in the mode of Dressed To Kill or Fatal Attraction, complete with explicit nudity and high production values, its attitude towards women and sexuality isn’t as simplistic as the anger directed towards it suggests. As film noir, Basic Instinct has many obvious signifiers. The male protagonist – a flawed detective, drawn to his own destruction, becomes involved with his primary murder suspect, an alluring, sexually ferocious female whose hedonistic lifestyle proves too seductive for him.

He is also involved with a dependable woman who seems to love him). The lighting, especially in a series of interrogation scenes, is reminiscent of noir in its ability to trap and ‘imprison’ characters and shade levels of moral ambivalence. The score by Jerry Goldsmith harks back to noir (including a few jazz inspired notes) and the earlier scores of Bernard Hermann. Venetian blinds slice through many scenes and the colour palette in the set and costume design uses black and white to invert the themes of good and evil.

More significantly however, Basic Instinct introduces not one, but four femme fatale roles and frequently manipulates the audiences knowledge and response to them to clever effect. As the film’s (arguable) focus, Sharon Stone (fig. 2) kick-started a career that had languished in B-movie supporting roles. She is visually reminiscent of classic noir femme fatale Kim Novak in Vertigo, right down to the bouffanted ice-blond hair and white dress suit. However she is a construct firmly rooted in nineties censorship and psychology.

Stone plays Catherine Trammel, a highly intelligent, sexually ambivalent heiress who may or may not be a homicidal maniac. The plot revolves around Detective Nick Curran’s (Michael Douglas) investigation of the murder of a rock star with whom Catherine was involved. Several other female figures feature in this investigation and are all linked to Catherine’s past and present. It is suggested that Catherine Trammel is the concealed blond of the opening murder scene. But the film doesn’t make it that simple for us.

Using the knowledge that Catherine ‘fucked’ Johnny Boz, the murder victim, Curran visits her house. He is greeted by a blond woman who we immediately assume to be Catherine (from our knowledge that the murderer has blond hair). This blond figure, who remains firmly superior to the two men in the scene (Curran and his partner Gus) via her position on the stairs above them and her confident sexual charisma, turns out to be Roxy, who we suspect is Catherine’s lover. Roxy appears to be of the classic femme fatale model.

She is distinctly blond (a signifier, in films of this type, of evil or corruption – see also Double Indemnity and Kiss Me Deadly in the classic period, Fatal Attraction and Body Of Evidence post-classical) and is obviously intelligent, not only discomforting the men with her sex, but with her words too. There are many levels to Roxy’s first scene in the movie. It alludes to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its use of mistaken identity (indeed, Verhoeven has suggested that Basic Instinct is a remake of that movie) and provides the first clue to the audience of the effect that female sexuality will have on men.

More importantly, this scene introduces us to a new type of femme, one who is not only sexually aggressive, but sexually ambiguous too. Roxy, is the most outwardly masculine of the four female characters (and it has been suggested that the femme fatale is a masculine construct – she smokes and drinks like a man and seeks sexual gratification in much the same way). Roxy wears jeans in the scene and pins her hair away from her face. She remains above the men who seem to shrink in her presence.

Throughout the film, Roxy is motivated by her sexual jealousy of Nick’s relationship with Catherine. She does not move in the smooth and serene way that Catherine does and her dialogue and demeanour – constantly threatening Nick to a showdown, remains masculine until her demise (when she becomes feminine again as we briefly mistake her for Catherine). Nick refers to her as Rocky and talks to her ‘man to man’ in the one moment during this film that the male penis seems threatening to a female (after he has had ‘the fuck of the century’ with Catherine).

Given Paul Verhoeven’s reputation for over-the-top exclamations and bluntness, you can almost imagine him screaming from behind the camera ‘act like a man, dammit! ‘ As the narrative progresses, we learn that Roxy had murdered her male siblings when she was a teenager and this adds to her status as a fatal woman. Her lesbianism marks her in contrast to Catherine, however, whose omnisexuality gives her power over Nick. Roxy’s lesbianism provoked the biggest response from gay critics who suggested that her death was punishment for her ‘deviant’ behaviour.

Given the history of the femme fatale, this suggestion can be argued. Regardless of her sexuality, Roxy has committed at least two acts of murder that we are aware of. She provokes Nick into the road battle that ends in her death and in true film noir fashion she is ultimately punished for her crimes. Also, on a very basic level, Roxy’s death frees the narrative of one of its blond femmes (and red herrings) and it moves us into the third and final act of the story.

Verhoeven has always denied the theory that Roxy dies, simply because she is a lesbian (the suggestion being that she threatens Nick’s male sexual dominance). While homosexuality has been ill-portrayed before in such movies as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), the suggestion in Basic Instinct isn’t that the murderer kills because ‘she’ may be a lesbian. Roxy’s death is based more on her sexual jealousy, which has driven her to destruction. Both Gus and Beth Garner (Nick’s therapist and lover) die in a more violent fashion and neither of their deaths is based on their sexuality.

In short, Roxy is visually similar to the classic femme fatale – she is blond (though this isn’t always a precursor), she has masculine traits and she uses her sexuality to gain control of people and situations – only to modernise her role, this sexuality extends to lesbianism. More telling, she dies in true femme fatale fashion – her transgressions have caught up with her and she is punished. She provides Basic Instinct with its closest affiliation to the classic femme, only she proves more fatal to herself than the noir ‘hero’.

Beth Garner, the dark haired, dependable lover of Nick Curran is perhaps just as intriguing as the role of Catherine Trammel. Beth appears to fit the role of the girl-next-door archetype that often contrasted with the stronger femme fatale in classic noir. But she hides secrets and behind her chipper smile and brunette bob, Beth is a variation of the femme fatale at heart (a similar construct can be found in Wild Things, in which the two female characters constantly shift between roles of the femme fatale and the ‘good’ girl).

When we first meet her, she lingers lovingly on Nick and we are convinced that she cares for him. Later when she ‘allows’ Nick to rape her (this ambiguous scene enraged feminist critics, save Camille Paglia, who has dissected the accusations of this scene in depth), we begin to see a side of Beth that suggests her awareness of her own sexuality, a concept that was rarely acknowledged by the ‘good’ girl of film noir. This can be explained by positing her as a modern woman, unburdened by familial ties and domseticity

Stone herself performed the opening sex scene, which might give us a clue to the screenplays intention and outcome. James Foley’s After Dark My Sweet (1990) is based on the Jim Thompson novel published in …. Rachel Ward, having played the femme fatal in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Against All Odds………… ‘How can black-and-white movies conceived originally in a prefeminist, sexually conservative era be post-modernised? ‘3

Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath (1995), a remake of Robert Siodmak’s classic film noir, Criss Cross (1949), remains faithful both to the source material and to the spirit of film noir. It’s a rather cold, generally underrated film that uses a myriad flashback structure and colour-coded visual style to tell its story. It updates several of the film noir archetypes, primarily the male protagonist (reinvented here, a vacant, heartless homme fatale) and more significantly, the femme fatale.

Soderbergh, writing under a pseudonym, seems intent on justifying his femme fatale and in true nineties style, explaining her. He gradually lets us in on her creation of his femme fatale (played by Alison Elliot), letting the audience see the inception, history and final formation of the fatal femme. Soderbergh again dipped into neo-noir with The Limey (1999) which featured Lesley Ann Warren as an aging version of the femme fatale – though an altogether more trusting and trustworthy role.

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