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'Femme Fatale'

De Palma takes a fall in 'Femme'

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If Brian De Palma suddenly forgot every Alfred Hitchcock film he had ever seen, I take it for granted he'd never be able to make another movie. In fact, I'd wonder if he could feed himself without stabbing his cheek with his fork.

"Femme Fatale"

RATING: R for strong sexuality, violence and language.

STARRING: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas.

DIRECTOR: Brian De Palma.

WEB SITE: femmefatalemovie.


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Now there's nothing wrong with, er, borrowing from the best, but De Palma has made a career of it that has lasted more than three decades. After a while, it's akin to Jimmy Stewart stumbling upon endless variations of Kim Novak in "Vertigo." At some point, he needs to move on. After all, someone has to shoot Liberty Valance.

De Palma's latest movie, "Femme Fatale," finds his leading lady, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, playing not one, not two, but three different variations of a woman named Laure Ash.

In the slick opening sequence, she's part of a team of thieves trying to steal a diamond-studded breastplate that reveals more breast than plate. Laure gets the woman wearing the item to remove it by playing sucky face in the ladies' room with enough passion to steam the mirrors. (I remember a few of those in De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," but it wouldn't be the first time he borrowed from himself.)

For Laure, clad in black leather, anything goes. Of course, we've already figured that out from the opening scene, in which her reflection can be glimpsed on the TV screen as she watches "Double Indemnity" wearing nothing but a sheet.

Later, through her own connivances and De Palma's contrivances (he wrote the movie, too), she turns into a shy, dark-haired French woman and then into a Grace Kelly clone wearing a blond wig and white scarf, dark sunglasses and an elegant fur-collared coat. Underneath, she sports extremely scanty underwear -- Hitchcock could only fantasize about that.

What's with the disguises, other than De Palma's Hitchcock obsession? Let's just say the heist (it takes place at the Cannes Film Festival, with real actresses and directors playing themselves) doesn't go as planned, and Laure has to hide out for a while. Her alter egos come about through sheer coincidence, but they prove useful until she is forced to return to France, where danger lurks. So does Antonio Banderas, a struggling paparazzo who makes the cardinal mistake of falling for his photographic prey.

Like him, we'd be better off not falling for anything. The Banderas character comes off as a dope -- or it could be that the sight of Romijn-Stamos in her skivvies can reduce any male to a simper. She actually handles her multiple identities well; it's just that she can't make a coherent character out of them.

In "Femme Fatale," you just can't believe anything you see. Much of what happens makes little sense until De Palma puts it into some kind of perspective. Even then, Laure indulges in behavior that seems at odds with her interests -- but which "her" are we talking about?

De Palma finally resorts to the most maddening, cliched cop-out imaginable. Audience manipulation is one thing -- no one did it more skillfully than Hitchcock, but he always left us some kind of reality to cling to.

When De Palma pulls the rug out, there's nothing to cushion the blow. We just bang our heads on the floor -- and start clamoring for his.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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