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The Femme Fatale in Cinema

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Some early scientists relegated women to a category somewhere above monkeys, yet below men, and the poet Milton observed that women are “a fair defect of nature.” 

However these were the pseudo-scientific notions about female variability and vulnerability, and were used to justify sexism and discrimination in society. Perhaps out of such frustrations rose the concept of a woman who defied her stereotypical image and donned the garb of someone who is just the opposite of the popular concept, which was more or less forced upon her. T

The phrase femme fatale is French for "deadly woman" and was created to project a social democratic revolt against the oppressiveness of the Victorian age, where women were constricted in a corset and pushed into claustrophobic ideologies and a shrunken introverted world. The femme fatale took an avatar of a female who has been created to break men’s hearts and led herself into a sunlit world. These femmes fatale are allowed to have it all — power, sexuality, femininity, and wealth — but they keep hankering for love and often faced a bad end because they defied conventions. The astonished man, who had earlier created an ideal woman from his own wishful imagination, suddenly meets someone whom he cannot control or understand. He labels her as a "bad woman;" the woman who must die or be banished because she is not the representative of his idealized image.

Women in Hollywood

Disillusioned with men and frustrated by a circumscribed life, this figure of a deadly femme fatale/vamp emerged as a central figure in the nineteenth century and became one of the most persistent personifications of modern female. “Who is she?” was the popular query. And the enigmatic answer would be: “She is the woman who never really is what she seem to be.”

She is the black widow spider who eats her mate alive; she is ungovernable, threatening to the male psyche, and she challenges the patriarchal culture vehemently. The femme fatale was a frequent character in films of the 1940s. Rita Hayworth as The Lady From Shanghai (1948) is the most enigmatic example. She embodies the overpoweringly desirable, duplicitous, and sexually insatiable femme fatale, who has been represented as a symptom of male anxieties about women. She is a creature who threatens to castrate and devour her male victim. This image of a sexual, dangerous woman is the psychological expression of a man’s own internal fears of sexuality, and his need to control and repress them.

The femme fatale’s appearance is always explicitly sexual with long dark or blonde hair worn loose on her back, long, sensuous legs, heavy make-up, sparkling jewelry, and revealing clothes, as portrayed in Sunrise (1927), from German director F.W. Murnau. She is the "woman of city," the urban female depicting the sexual pleasures of modern metropolitan life. She represents an open challenge to the post-war image of women  fulfilled only by their roles as wives and mothers.

Two of the most powerful screen portrayals are Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), in which both are frustrated wives married to dull and older men. In Hollywood, the femme fatale’s most characteristic role is a nightclub singer on the fringes of the underworld. She traps her victims through seductive dances and explicit displays of sexual threat. Watch Ava Gardener in The Killers (1946) playing Kitty Collins as she is first glimpsed by her victim Swede (Burt Lancaster) singing "The More I Know of Love" and you will see how she comes across as the apotheosis of a mythical femininity. She is sexy and feline, and has that dreamlike sensuality about her with her sloe-shaped eyes, curvaceous cheekbones, cleft chin, and full upturned mouth. All these features exude an open sexual invitation, and she is the ultimate femme fatale here.

The Good Bad girl

The femme fatale often emerges from darkness into harsh light, or is bisected by both to indicate a certain instability. However, Hollywood found a way to bring out the femme fatale from the narrow confines of the stereotyped seductress who just doesn’t resort to narcissism and duplicity to have her way. The femme fatale is also sometimes the beleaguered hero’s helpmate. She is often shown as supporting him and believing in his innocence, or his ability to solve problems. The figure of the good bad girl combines the sexual stimulation of the femme fatale with the fundamental decency of a wife or a lover. She can appear to be cynical, wayward, and obsessed with money, but this stems from disillusionment with men and the frustrations of a constrained life.

Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) are perfect examples of the type. They are cool, terse, sexually assured, and independent women, and yet remain on the hero’s side. To the hero they offer a slightly mocking image and allow him to feel relaxed in their company, just like they would feel with a male companion. The good bad girls have the masculine and feminine qualities merged together and although they appear two-faced, like the typical femme fatale, they do prove themselves to be loyal. If they cannot help the hero, they can support him and believe in his ability to solve problems. The best and most complex example of this type is Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).

The bad women of cinema went through a noticeable transformation over the next decades and the hideously prominent false eyelashes, hard contact lenses, huge wigs, feather gowns, and shimmering two-piece dresses are replaced by the more chic and contemporary get-ups. They are no more limited to being the cabaret dancers, or a gangster’s moll. The fun, fearless female is played by the female protagonist now, and she has emerged as the voluptuous, deeply alluring, and convincingly sexy woman who knows her mind. She is also subtle, clever, sophisticated, and extremely patient, waiting for the right time to strike, just like a predator.

One of the best examples of such a woman is of Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp in Golden Eye (1995). She is like none other so far. Perceived as a classic representation of the femme fatale, she is the "black widow spider" woman who devours her mate after sex. She gets her sexual satisfaction by killing unscrupulously. Watch her making love on a yatch, clad in revealing lingerie and screaming "Yes…Yes…YES!!…" as she crushes the man’s chest between her thighs during orgasm. Her sadistic sexual proclivities coupled with an absolute lack of conscience make her the deadliest femme fatale. As Bond says in the end, “She always enjoyed a good squeeze.”

Some of the Bad Girls Having All the Fun

Demi Moore played a sexually frustrated boss in Disclosure (1994) who turns implacably revengeful when Michael Douglas spurns her advances.

In Fatal Attraction (1987) the script follows the tale of a one-night stand turned sour and Glenn Close comes across as every married man’s worst nightmare, playing the role of an obsessed lover turned psychopath. She managed the role with considerable élan. Though her role cannot be described as the typical femme fatale, it did throw light on the stormy, mutinous side of a woman who would not compromise on anything if it comes to what she wants.

Glenn Close also played the femme fatale in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), where her character Marquise De Mertenti is the deadly jealous woman plotting a heartless revenge to get even with her detractors.

In Basic Instinct (1992) Sharon Stone was the ultimate femme fatale. As Catherine Tramell, the successful novelist, she eats men for breakfast, and cuts their hearts and balls to pieces, with one leg scissoring over the other.

In Body Heat (1981) Kathleen Turner is the infamous Matty Walker, the voracious, crafty and greedy femme fatale, a married socialite plotting to kill her husband. Watch her in the iniquitous sex scenes with William Hurt.

In Last Seduction (1994) Linda Florentino, as Bridget Gregory is the beautiful and bright femme fatale who has everything going for her except a treacherous mind that would not stop at anything to get what she wants.

In 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) when Kim Bassinger arches her back and spreads her legs in the rain in a dark stairwell, her pouty lips and smoldering eyes are the femme fatale tools polished to perfection.

Ultraviolet (2006) was a relatively bad film, but watch Milla Jovovich as the ultimate sci-fi femme fatale. With her incredible face, hair, make-up, costume, attitude, and a killer body, she is absolutely a drool-worthy femme fatale in this film. In Resident Evil (2004) she handles her weapons with deadly authority. Her menacing glare and excellent sword work are something to watch out for in this film.

Uma Thurman bristles with untamed rage in Kill Bill (2003). Consumed with revenge she moves about like a force of nature in action scenes, and despite a subtle lack of physical grace, she handles the fights with much flair.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft is smart, sexy, sassy, and sophisticated in Tomb Raider (2001). She is near perfect in that aggressive and physically demanding role despite the laughably fake breasts.

Pamela Lee Anderson in Barb Wire (1996) prevails over the baddies and gets more naked in the film than she had perhaps been in her entire life taking showers. But she managed to pull off the femme fatale role impressively.

In Blade: Trinity (2004) Jessica Biel with a gun is a captivating sight, and she carries off the femme fatale role with talent and matching physicality. Despite the lackluster action and some atrocious dialogue in the film, she is an enchanting sight throughout.

In Underworld (2003) Kate Beckinsale is dressed in black leather, heavy boots, and carries a no-nonsense attitude and a gun with unflinching authority. She projects an ample intensity and cold hatred with a perpetual scowl on her face, and her cold dark eyes, framed with deadly arched eyebrows give her the most effective femme fatale look.

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About Nazia Mallick