Spotlight on—The Cannes Film Festival in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale

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The 2011 Cannes Film Festival is happening this week, and I wanted to give you a glimpse of Brian De Palma’s surreal 2001 Cannes Film Festival set-piece in Femme Fatale. This was the same Cannes where David Lynch won the Prix de la mise en scène [best director] for that year’s other Sapphically charged Noir dreamscape—Mulholland Drive. Some of the thematic and visual connections between the two films are explored over at the incredible fansite—Lost on Mulholland Drive.

Now, Brian De Palma is the purest visual storyteller in the cinema today. Unlike many of the other great directors working today, De Palma’s cinema is a visual medium first and a narrative medium second—if at all. He loves to use flights of logical fancy to set up powerfully symbolic and psychologically complex set pieces, but unlike other logically-challenged auteurs like the aforementioned Mr. Lynch, De Palma genuinely wants to satisfy some of your generic cravings—that urge to see the bad guy get it or have a big shootout. The tension created between these two wildly different goals—Cinéma Pur and B-Movie schlock—not only keeps De Palma’s career going; it makes him one of the most interesting directors of all time.

Femme Fatale—more than his early classics, more than his few late period gems—is De Palma’s signature film. In no other movie does he have such free reign over his scenario. His script reaches far beyond absurdity into realms of the subconscious where the borders between dream and truth become insignificant, and his rapturous, James Bondish fetish for technogadgetry make the film one of the more surreal expressions of fantasy in cinema. Too often the tendency in fantasy is to fall back on antiquated notions of “otherness” and to leave gadgets for the sci-crowd. De Palma rightly realizes that few things in life are as abstract and magical as highly advanced technology.

In this, and many other ways Femme Fatale is everything that Christopher Nolan’s Inception wanted to be. It presents a high octane, action-oriented, techno-fficient dream story that layers dream within dream to explore the nature of guilt and offer its characters redemption. The main difference is in the approach to the material. Where Inception goes for straight sci-fi and potboiler exposition, Femme Fatale goes for lyrical romanticism and absolutely zero expositon. The effect of this seemingly subtle difference is that the world of Femme Fatale—the shooting, the acting, the emotions—feel authentically dreamlike in a way that Inception never even approaches.

The opening heist is the high point of the film. Cut beautifully to a purposely—and even titularly—“Bolerish” Ryuichi Sakamoto piece, it weaves all the different perspectives on the heist together into a symphony of color and line. Based on one of the most absurd premises in the history of movies and featuring no less than ten different points-of-view, it’s the culmination of all of De Palma’s sexual, architechtural, and generic concerns in one fourteen minute sequence of unadulturated verve. The camera’s self confidence comes across in every frame—in every movement. The sequence avoids his somewhat overused split-screen effect—saving that for some fascinating passages later in the film. Instead it focuses on lengthy tracking shots, extreme close ups, and complex crosscutting to turn the scene into a ballet of sex, violence, and glitz.

It also features some wonderful footage of the Cannes festival in full swing.

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