She’s blonde. She watches Double Indemnity from a bed in a regal Cannes hotel room. There’s a notorious blonde, right there. Then she’s brunette. She falls over a railing in a Parisian hotel. She sinks beneath the surface of a warm bath. Then she’s blonde again. She plummets off a bridge into the Seine. She drops into a dark, definitionless pool, naked, alone, lit in incandescent blue.
Where are you now?
But really, the right question isn’t “Where are you now?” It’s “When are you now?” Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002), a free-floating head trip of a movie, scrambles time to create an operatic, disorienting experience for its viewers. The film says you are here, you are there, you are everywhere, and you are nowhere.
De Palma’s filmography is rife with allusions and illusions. He employs both to create a cinema characterized by deep love and respect for classic Hollywood (especially the films of Alfred Hitchcock) and postmodern reference and repurpose. See the images of Rear Window (1954) in Sisters (1973), when amateur sleuth Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) enters the apartment of a killer, watched by his compatriot, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) from across the street. Feel the ghosts of Psycho (1960) in Dressed To Kill (1980), in the mid-point death of the purported protagonist Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) or its ironic, absurdist restaging of the infamous Hitchcock scene where a psychoanalyst explains Norman Bates’s madness. Hear the hypnotic strings of Vertigo (1957) in Blow Out (1981), a fusion of Hitchcock’s obsessive deconstruction of a man in crisis with the paranoid politics of the assassination era.
As De Palma himself puts it in an eponymous career-retrospective documentary released in 2015, directed by fans and filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, “Hitchcock created a cinematic language anyone can use.”
For much of his career, De Palma has been speaking that language with all the volume he can muster. There are acrobatic long takes, where the camera drifts, ducks, and dives, seemingly possessed by the theatricality of Rope (1954). De Palma convinced Hitchcock’s longtime composer Bernard Herrmann, before he died in 1976, to score Sisters and Obsession (1976); after Herrmann’s death, De Palma’s later films’ musical notes still bear his influence. Dramatic use of color, dutch angles, shock cutting—this is the grammar of Hitchcock, and De Palma picks up the pen. It is not enough to describe the relationship of Hitchcock to De Palma as influence. On De Palma’s part, it’s a full-on internalization of Hitchcock’s cinematic product. He breathes it. And, as is often the case in his films, he bleeds it.
All of which leads back to the central question—when are you now?
De Palma’s Obsession, co-written by Paul Schrader, is an explicit reworking of Vertigo, a film both men admired long before it became almost universally regarded, appearing on college syllabi across the known world. In it, New Orleans businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) bungles a ransom demand from kidnappers, who have made off with his wife and daughter. The handoff goes badly, the kidnappers flee, and both hostages are killed. Years later, in Florence on business, Michael sees the spitting image of his wife seemingly reincarnated into the body of a woman named Sandra (Geneviève Bujold). It may as well be Kim Novak. The plot thickens from there—as it tends to in both Hitchcock and De Palma—but the film concludes with an explicit reference to Vertigo, as Herrmann’s score swells around a swirling, slow-motion camera, as it runs laps around the embracing Michael and Sandra. Its original title, perhaps more appropriate in the context of De Palma’s cinema writ large, was “Déjà vu.”
You’ve seen this movie before. You are in New Orleans, in an airport in 1976. But you’re also in a San Francisco apartment in 1958. You are when you watched the film the first time, in 2004, in a classroom in Carbondale, Illinois, as a student. You are when you showed the film to a group of your own students, in 2017, in a classroom in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, as a teacher. You are in every time. And you are in no time.
To watch De Palma’s films is to exist as a viewer out of time. The depth of his allusive power has the transcendent effect of destabilizing your connection to your own current moment. You watch, and you are transported to a liminal space between the film itself and its cinematic forebears. It works on your mind by disconnecting you from your sense of when you exist.
Femme Fatale, a film that does this perhaps more than any other in his filmography, owes a great deal to Hitchcock, as all De Palma’s films do. But, its title is a direct illustration of the old noir trope of the dangerous woman who lures a hapless male character to his doom. And suddenly, primed by the title, they’re all here with us in this moment. There goes Out of the Past’s Jane Greer, drifting in out of the sun. Or The Postman Always Rings Twice’s Lana Turner, chiming at the door. Queen bee, though, is Double Indemnity’s Barbara Stanwyck, she of the golden, diamond-encrusted anklet. It’s a honey of an anklet.
It’s her image you first see when Femme Fatale fades up from black, playing on that Cannes hotel room television. De Palma shows you the film’s climactic scene, as Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) comes to Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Stanwyck) home to get rid of the last person who knows what his many sins are. Her sins are his. But her sins are also much greater in number.
As if the title, Double Indemnity, weren’t enough to indicate that De Palma wants you to see things twice, the reflective surface of the screen shows you who’s watching this film—master thief, Laure (Rebecca Romijn). In an operatic heist sequence set against the backdrop of a film premiere at the Cannes film festival, Laure and two accomplices, “Black Tie” (Eriq Ebouaney) and Racine (Édouard Montrouge), attempt to make off with a golden brassiere encrusted with diamonds. Laure must seduce its wearer, Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), in the ladies’ room, while Black Tie swaps Veronica’s evening wear with a fake. The heist goes badly, ending in gunfire that leaves Black Tie critically wounded. Laure double crosses her partners, and makes off with the loot.
The heist sequence is vintage De Palma. He employs long takes, one of his ultimate movie manipulations of time, but his editing really shines, especially when backed by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score. He intercuts between the two women in the ladies’ room stall, locked in the throes of feigned (or is it?) passion, and Black Tie in the one adjacent, swapping the phony diamonds for real ones. He hops to Racine, stuffed in an air duct, guiding a blowtorch that will eventually kill the building’s power. He jumps to the movie premiere taking place in the theatre, the director looking on nervously. He shows us the security guards, dutifully watching the surveillance monitors. Once again, you are everywhere at once, seeing all of the players in simultaneity. It is a testament to the film’s command of its own pace that the intercutting never feels like it accelerates the action past the point of measured; somehow, it remains deliberate and escalatory, all at the same time.
A case of mistaken identity lands Laure in a strange apartment, in a strange bed, confused for her raven-haired doppelganger, Lily (Romijn, also). While Laure is in a bath, Lily comes home and, depressed, shoots herself. Finding a passport and ticket to America among Lily’s things, Laure heads off for America, assuming her identity and marrying a traveling businessman, Bruce Watts (Peter Coyote), sitting next to her on the plane.
Seven years after Laure has fled France in her Lily disguise, De Palma’s most evocative double exposure occurs in a sequence he shows you twice, which becomes the film’s centerpiece. Black Tie, alive and fresh out of prison, comes looking for her. Riding with Racine, they decide to head to Paris, where they can brace a woman who knows Laure, and possibly fenced the diamonds for her. The operatic De Palma returns, as he slows time to show the pursuit and confrontation of this mystery woman, whose face is hidden from us, dressed in green army camouflage. It is a street in Paris, in front of a church where a wedding is taking place. The market is busy. Men load fruit into an open and waiting truck bed, its spiked forklift gate jutting out. Black Tie and Racine chase her through the streets, grab her, and throw her into the middle of traffic, where she is run down by a rumbling freight truck.
The sequence introduces the film’s other major character, paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), who watches from his balcony. You can hear the echoes bouncing off the walls again—Bardo is Rear Window’s L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), and Body Double’s Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), witnesses to murders they can’t stop. Bardo photographs the steps of a church near the action below, which transports you back to Obsession, as Courtland—himself a man stuck in a happier time—when his wife and daughter were alive, stares up at a church in Florence. A church where he met Elizabeth (Bujold also) and finds Sandra restoring a painting. You’ve been here before. The advertisements on the street for an opera remind us. Its title? Déjà vue.
One of the film’s most important images is the fragmented mural of photographs inside Bardo’s apartment, taking up an entire wall. He’s photographed the same street below his balcony again and again, sometimes with color stock, sometimes in black and white. In some photos it’s sunny, in some it’s raining. Some show the church during the day. Some show the market at night. He has then reconstructed, collaged, fragmented, splattered, each image together to make the entire scene. The whole picture is made up of smaller, disparate pieces. When you look at it, you are in the past, the present, the future. Your mind departs the time in which your body stands. It is this image that the film will return to at its end.
The film’s intervening events escalate into a kidnapping plot, where Bardo discovers Laure’s true identity, and is drawn into her spider’s web of sex, crime, and temptation. Seeking an escape route, she attempts to extract ransom from her husband Bruce, presenting Bardo as her co-conspirator. As the money exchange goes south, and Laure is knocked into the Seine, she suddenly wakes up back in Lily’s apartment, the bathwater overflowing. It has been a dream. A vision of the future. Something you have seen before, and may see again. Lily enters, and this time, Laure intervenes. She stops the suicide. Lily heads for the airport, hitching a ride with a fruit truck driver, upon whom she bestows a gift: a necklace, to remind the lonely driver of his little girl at home, who he rarely sees.
Seven years later. Again.
You are on a street in Paris. No, not just any street—the street. Overlooking the church, where a wedding is taking place. Bardo is on his balcony, camera in hand. The market is busy. Men loading fruit into an open and waiting truck bed, its spiked forklift gate jutting out. Memories of what happened flood back to you. A pursuit. A struggle. A woman in army camouflage crushed beneath the power of an oncoming truck. And look. There she is. Sitting across from Laure. They discuss the diamonds, the last of which the woman has just sold. The mystery woman’s identity is revealed. Veronica. The seeming victim of the heist sequence in the film’s opening moments. She of the golden, diamond encrusted brassiere. Memories of the bathroom stall wash over you.
They part. Laure stands on the street corner. Veronica heads into a shop. But then, it happens. The thing you’ve seen before. She turns and runs, desperate to escape across the street. A slow-motion shot of her pursuers, their feet in time with one another as they pound the pavement. A slow motion shot of the oncoming truck. Laure watches in horror, down the street, unable to intervene to help Veronica without giving herself away. But this time, something new. A shot of the driver of the truck, the one bound to crush Veronica beneath its wheels.
It’s Lily’s driver, from seven years ago. The necklace, glinting in the sun, hangs from the mirror. He remembers his daughter always, every day behind the wheel, for these seven intervening years since he gave a raven-haired woman a ride. The truck turns. “Black Tie” and Racine hold Veronica against the metal forklift gate of the fruit truck, its spires at chest level, threatening and dangerous.
Laure reaches out. The sun glints off of Bardo’s lens as he photographs Laure on the street, hoping to preserve this moment in his fragmented mural of the street outside; the sun’s ray bounces into the driver’s truck, glinting off of the hanging, shining necklace. The flash blinds him; he turns the wheel, distracted, heading straight for the fruit truck, “Black Tie,” Racine, Veronica, the metal spires. “Black Tie” and Racine throw Veronica into the street, expecting the truck to run her down. But it doesn’t. It careens towards them and, in a violent explosion of flesh and blood and metal, impales the two bandits against the forklift. Veronica smiles at Laure and scampers off, unharmed. Time has been altered.
Bardo appears on the street, next to Laure. Laure knows him. She’s seen him before. Bardo can’t help but feel the déjà vu. He thinks they’ve met somewhere before. Laure tells him, “Only in my dreams.” You feel the wisp of the closing line of The Maltese Falcon, itself a repurposing of Shakespeare. You’ve been here before.
You are a time traveler. To sit in a darkened theatre, to consent to enter a dream or a nightmare, is to transcend the limitations of the clock, the calendar, the historical timeline. Film itself is beyond time. It is a depiction of the era—whether period or contemporary—it purports to show, certainly. But it is also a record of that historical moment, when those actors looked that way, when this street had that shop, when that day felt like this. They watched it then, those people who came before. You watch it now. They will watch it then, those people who come after. It is not bound by its own time. It breaks free.
De Palma’s cinema foregrounds film’s ability to collapse time in a profound way. Its endless loops of reference, revision, repurpose, all serve to deliver you into another moment, while simultaneously preserving this one. You can be in two places at once. More than two. You can be everywhere, everywhen, and never move.
You are in Bardo’s apartment, looking at the mural. Its fragmented photographs split time into a thousand recorded moments, all visible at once.
You’ve been here before.