Every time I hear someone complain about Brian De Palma being a "soulless technician," I want to cry, "Au contraire, he is a soul ful technician!" That is, he's one of the few living directors whose mastery of rhythm, composition, and camera movement is justification enough for almost any empty exercise he wants to do. I always think of him as a fiendish mathematician cooking up some new spatial-temporal theorem—often based, admittedly, on equations by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock or Dario Argento. At its greatest, in Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Casualties of War (1989), and much of Carlito's Way (1993), his technique adds up to more than bravura showmanship. But even when it doesn't—as in his new Femme Fatale (Warner Bros.)—it's like an outrageous new Ben & Jerry's flavor for thriller gluttons. So, dig in.
He wrote Femme Fatale himself and, frankly, to call it "delirious" would make it sound too coherent. It's so nonsensical that it's almost abstract. It's basically a host of hot-dog sequences knitted together with a post-Stephen Hawking noir narrative (not dissimilar to some of David Lynch's recent experiments)—a hypnotic cobbling-together of his own Mission: Impossible (1996) with Vertigo (1958) and maybe some Krzysztof Kieslowski. It opens with a long, long shot of a half-naked woman, seen only from behind, who's watching the climax of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) with French subtitles. Since Wilder's is the classic, definitive femme-fatale noir, and since De Palma is beginning with it, you know he has some mighty big cojones. Or that he's going to go in wiggy new directions altogether.
The opening set-piece tops anything in Mission: Impossible: It's practically a cinematic sex act. At the Cannes Film Festival, in the course of a glamorous gala and to the strains of Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Bolero"-like music, a team of thieves led by the sleekly sadistic Eriq Ebouaney and the slinky blonde Rebecca Romijn-Stamos execute a daring caper: She poses as a photographer and seduces a drop-dead-gorgeous model (Veronica, aka Rie Rasmussen) wearing 500 diamonds (385 carats) in lieu of a blouse. While the two women fondle each other hungrily in a bathroom stall, a little phallic camera peeks out of a laser-bored hole in the security office, another thief slides down a long circular shaft, and, as a distraction, a guard dribbles honey over the keys of another guard. I watched and thought, De Palma Cometh.
There's a bloody double-cross and a lot of confusion. When Femme Fatale resumes, the blonde wears a brunette wig, goes down a rabbit hole, and assumes the identity of a distraught look-alike Frenchwoman who blows her own brains out. Seven years later, the "Bolero" music has become Bernard Hermann circa Vertigo, as an ex-paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) trails Laure in her current persona around Paris. A fake kidnapping, lots of sex, and some time-bending later, the plot is revealed as something of a shaggy-blonde story, and Romijn-Stamos is revealed as no actress. (She's like a Xerox of a Xerox of a noir blonde.) But De Palma has provided enough ripe flesh, split-screen mayhem, and dreamlike imagery to power six films noir. It's not Body Double, it's Body Sextuple.