The Nine Lives of the Femme Fatale

New Regency Pictures/20th Century Fox
When I walked into the cool Chicago night after seeing Gone Girl I couldn’t shake the feeling that noir and arguably its most powerful archetype, the femme fatale, have atrophied. The femme fatale and noir occupy a large space in my heart. In my teens still trapped by the reverberations of the divorce between my abusive father and controlling albeit caring mother, my mind at war with itself thanks to schizoaffective disorder, the femme fatales of classic Hollywood offered me an alternate sense of being. They showed me there is worth in transgressing social boundaries in search of autonomy as a woman. They told me my anger and creative fire was valid. But the femme fatale has always been a contentious creation. Many see her as simply an embodiment of post-WWII American male neuroses. Male fear turned flesh. Overripe sexuality operating for the male gaze, dressed in silk with a cigarette in one hand and a loaded gun in the other. But this definition simplifies her because, like all the best things from the studio era in classic Hollywood, she is a wonderful, confounding contradiction.

The femme fatale is as much a reaction to male fear as women’s feelings that progress has left them behind. That they’re stuck in the amber of rigid gender conformity. The femme fatale isn’t obsessed with the destruction of men, that is a byproduct of her true aims: to find a sense of autonomy in a culture that wants to keep her powerless. But I noticed a change in the femme fatale beginning in the 1980s that watching Gone Girl crystallized for me, she has lost her soul. She may lead her films, survive (or even win) but she lacks the contradictions that made her so dynamic in the 1940s and 1950s. Ultimately, the modern femme fatale can be boiled down to two simple words: Crazy Bitch.

We can’t understand the dramatic change in the archetype without exploring her foremother in the noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. And you can’t talk about thefemme fatale without talking about Barbara Stanwyck. Throughout the early history of noir, Stanwyck played a variety of mercurial dames with murder and vengeance on their minds. She excelled by giving these women various shades of emotional intelligence and vulnerability. Stanwyck is most well known for one such role—Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s noir gold standard Double Indemnity (1944).

Double Indemnity has all the major markers of noir including strong shadows, psychosexual thematics, an interest in giving villainy a voice, and the desire to frame the American Dream as a tragedy. In the film, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls in lust with the quicksilver cool Phyllis, who wants to kill her maybe/maybe not abusive husband and run off with the insurance money. It’s easy to see the film as the story of a smarter, sexually realized woman engineering the downfall of a man to suit her own ends. But it can also be seen as Phyllis exploiting a darkness that was in Walter all along, just waiting to find its purpose.

Phyllis’ darkness manifests in a sense of falsehood, which bleeds into her own physical appearance. In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck is fitted with an appalling blonde wig that underscores her unnaturalness. To quote Billy Wilder, the wig reminds the audience of her “sleazy phoniness”. Because of the production code during the studio era, filmmakers relied on smuggling in sex, death, and the lurid aspects of life through clever subtext. This gives the films an odd doubling effect—what the film says loudly and what it whispers, what is seen in the film and what is felt. Lola (Jean Heather), who is the Madonna to Phyllis’ whore, tells Walter that Phyllis is a nurse responsible for her mother’s death, which she then exploited to marry the grieving Mr. Dietrichson. But another story can also be true: that her mother’s death had nothing to do with Phyllis. Stanwyck gives Phyllis’ rage layers. I always imagined her as a woman beaten down by life who finally decided to get hers. So the very same rage that Lola confuses for psychopathy can also be justified by the cold way Mr. Dietrichson treats her.

I am still in high school when I first see Double Indemnity. It is only as an adult that I fully understand the texture of Phyllis’ emotions. She carries herself with a sort of mid-century trashiness, caked with “sleazy phoniness”, but her emotions are all real. One of the most recognizable images from the film is simply Phyllis’ face as she watches Walter kill her husband. The violence is off screen, which makes the play of emotions on her face (fear, power, lust, relief) all the more memorable. She may die at the end of the film but it is her hungers we remember long after the credits roll.

Classic femme fatales weren’t perfect. We witness them engaging in dangerous affairs (Niagara), lusting for violence (Gun Crazy), getting burned and burning back (The Big Heat), and even allowing a man to die without lifting a finger to help (Leave Her to Heaven, The Little Foxes). But they feel like real women I could pass on the street, simply reacting to the particular ways in which they were policed. Two years after Double Indemnity, Stanwyck played the titular femme fatale in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. As the lead character, Martha is many things–– shrewd, orphaned, intelligent, sexual, yearning, and mercurial. These aren’t just window-dressings; they inform her character a great deal. Watching the film as an adult I connected deeply with her yearning and how it informs both her lust and violence. By privileging Martha’s emotional narrative the film gives her villainy a grayness and humanity, rather than making her a stew of cultural fears about smart sexual women. Even though she dies at the end she welcomes death on her own terms. And there’s something to be said about seeing a woman rattle the cage society has locked her into. If films back in the 1940s and 1950s were able to make the femme fatale human, what is holding back her modern incarnation?

Modern noir isn’t as interested in the psychology behind the femme fatale’s destruction but rather the way her destruction wrecks those in her orbit. This is starkly apparent in two Michael Douglas noirs that exist at the cross section of trashy and horrifying—Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992).

In Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays an everyman figure as father and husband, Dan Gallagher. As Alex Forrest, Glenn Close inhabits the role of femme fatale as madwoman, with her hungry gaze and venomous machinations. She embodies the late 1980s fear of the single woman and feminist advancement. Unlike a lot of other femme fatales, Alex doesn’t wear her villainy like a hot pink neon sign. She begins as a successful single woman whose tryst with family man Dan seems fun with a faint whiff of something that will be compartmentalized soon after. But soon enough, when she sees how easy it is for Dan to throw her away, her desire gains the pitch of a scream. It is as if the narrative replaced the Alex of the beginning of the film with a monster who shares her face. She slits her wrists, slyly meets Dan’s perfect wife (Anne Archer), and threatens the sanctity of their marriage (though he does the very same thing by having the affair, which the film conveniently forgets). Worse yet, her biological clock starts ticking so loudly she hears the voice of reason and decides to go through with the pregnancy, even though it seems wildly out of character. The narrative is more interested in blaming her, turning her madness into an inevitability of her singleness, than honestly exploring her contradictions. The film turns her into a monster because a single woman who works and fucks “like a man” has to have something wrong with her. Society makes the femme fatale a monster because we can’t see a woman skirting the edges of decency, going after what she wants by brutal means, and out fucking every man around her as anything but.

If Alex embodies the femme fatale’s madness, Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) embodies her lust. On the surface, Catherine is fascinating: strong willed, well-educated, successful, and utterly bold as a bisexual woman. But a leering male gaze rules Basic Instinct. The film has an utter disinterest for Catherine beyond who she fucks or who she kills, meaning the character loses any semblance of emotional reality. If either Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct ended with Michael Douglas waking up from a fuck-fantasy-turned-nightmare, the films might have made more sense. Their femme fatales are hard to imagine existing beyond the confines of a man’s mind. Can you imagine either of these women running errands or having friends or even existing before the start of the film?

Sometimes, I like to imagine what women watching from the audience felt about the films in this hothouse genre during their original release. In the 1940s, they probably felt an odd brew of fear, revulsion, and awe. Maybe this mix of housewives, bohemians, and professional women felt the same thrill that I do. Maybe they asked themselves: Can I get what I want? What’s holding me back? How can I be like that woman up there? The women of the 1980s-90s got a femme fatale that was a feminist’s nightmare, operating at an operatic tenor whose desires felt unlike a real woman’s, but came across like a man’s fantasy woman turned nightmarish. Maybe every generation gets the femme fatale they deserve. In 2014, we get Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in the David Fincher directed, Gillian Flynn scripted Gone Girl.

One morning, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home after receiving a neighborly phone call at the Missouri bar he owns with his snarky, warm twin sister Go (Carrie Coon). The front door to the hollow suburban splendor of their home is wide open, the cat is on the lawn, and the living room shows the ominous signs of a struggle. Most frighteningly, Amy is gone. As the police get involved, more and more damning evidence pops up. Between the present day scenes are flashbacks from Amy’s diary, her voice guiding our way. Then the film turns the usual story, in which the husband kills his wife, on its head. The Amy we’ve been bonding with through her diary entries—detailing her courtship with Nick that shifts from wonderful, powdered sugar framed kisses to abuse—is a lie. As Amanda Hess said in a recent Slate article, “here, instead of the psycho bitch ruining the perfect wife’s life, the perfect wife is the psycho bitch.”

Amazing Amy. Cool Girl Amy. Perfect Wife Amy. Psycho Bitch Amy. Pike embodies all these masks with the faint chill of a Hitchcock blonde. She understands that under the surface of all these masks is simply the husk of a woman. While Flynn’s book, with its strange backhanded remarks about feminism, is far from perfect, it gives Amy complications that explain the underpinnings of her madness. The film privileges Nick’s narrative of the former golden boy rotting away in Midwestern decay who just can’t catch a break because of the women in his life. When Nick slams Amy brutally against a wall after she reveals another plot twist, the audience can shrug off his violence because she’s a crazy bitch and crazy bitches deserve to suffer.

The novel’s cultural legacy is perhaps the ‘Cool Girl’ speech that comes just after the Amy we’ve gotten to know is revealed to be a lie: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex […]Men actually think this girl exists. […] Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. […]There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”

Reading the monologue again I realized how important the Cool Girl archetype is to the formation of the femme fatale in modern noir. Without it she doesn’t exist. From Alex Forrest right on down to Amy Elliott Dunne they pretend to be someone else to lure the man in and place him in shackles he confuses for a prize. This perhaps illustrates the biggest difference between the modern fatale and her foremother. Women like Phyllis Dietrichson didn’t pretend they were someone else. Their ambitions, sexuality, and machinations were always on full display. If anything it was the men around them who had to rise to the occasion, who had to give into their internal darkness to be worthy to stand next to them.

There are echoes of previous femme fatales in Amy; she’s a clever catalogue of the roles available for women. She’s the Cool Girl in Alex Forrest before she goes mad in Fatal Attraction: all sexy come-ons, smiles, and hungry sexuality. When Amy seduces Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) we can see Pike clearly understands the physicality of the femme fatale. She brings to mind Lauren Bacall, a woman full of feline grace and a voice that’s like good whiskey. Her particular brand of villainy can be traced to the women of The Last Seduction (1994) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Her ability to shape-shift resembles the outline of Theresa Russell’s fatale in the overlooked 1987 gem Black Widow.

Amy’s a lot of women and, ultimately no one at all. Even though she technically wins this sick game of cat and mouse by entrapping Nick, she seems rather pathetic because she’s trapped herself too. Is that all she’s in it for—a narcissistic, psychotic need for control given no explanation? It becomes clear that Fincher’s film understands the social architecture of being a woman—the roles you play to get by, the particular brand of anger that blooms in intelligent women when you realize how hard it is to live by your own definition of being a woman—but it just doesn’t care enough to truly explore them. Watching the way Amy’s villainy develops — through fake rapes and domestic violence accusations—is troubling. Her villainy is rooted in hysterical societal fears and ignores the reality of what happens to women who have been raped and abused in our cultural landscape, even the pretty blonde ones. For the femme fatale’s foremothers these tactics were a necessity of escape not a real source of power.

So, is the femme fatale feminist? Sexist? Misandrist? Taking her as a whole, from Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity right on down to Amy Elliott Dunne inGone Girl, that becomes a hard question to answer. The femme fatale has become a cultural shorthand for women who fuck and fuck up with abandon—think 1990s and early aughts Angelina Jolie or, further back, someone like 1960s-1970s era Elizabeth Taylor. Like the archetype, their transgressions led her to be identified as something animalistic. A viper, a spider woman. Something to want and fear in equal measure. All too often women who are selfish, complex, mercenary, or emotional firestorms get branded as femme fatales. The femme fatale can have all of these traits, but a female character has to have an air of doom about her. She potently mixes the mores of sex and death. She either consciously or unconsciously destroys people around her in seeking to gain power. In many ways she’s a modernization of the combined myths of Medusa and Lilith. Two mythic figures whose stories of anger, monstrousness, and lust have been reclaimed and deconstructed in feminist circles. So, why not the femme fatale?

Women in American film are so often defined by absence. Absence of self. Absence of voice. Absence of purpose. There are so many compromises women make in the course of even one day. You smile when men are crude. You lie and say you have a boyfriend when a man won’t leave you alone. You take up as little space as possible. The femme fatale takes a different approach. She’s tired of fucking compromising. She’s tired of playing your perfect little wife, your prodigal daughter, your 2AM fuck. She wants more. And if she has to carve a bloody road to get to the promise of brighter days and a sense of autonomy than so be it.

As noir has continued the femme fatale feels less and less like a real person. Let me be clear: I don’t turn to any form of art looking for realism. What I am talking about is emotional realism, an internal life. The modern femme fatalefeels like an automaton powered by lust and male fear. She has become a reaction, however unconscious, to feminist advancement and the shifting gender politics at play. Watching Gone Girl I started to wonder if there is any hope for the femme fatale. Can we expect more from her? What does it say about our cultural imagination that the femme fatale‘s strength is still rooted in the fleeting sexual power that comes with being a beautiful woman? Still I can’t give up on the archetype quite yet because of the ways women like Audrey Totter, Barbara Stanwcyk, and Gloria Grahame portrayed her in the 1940s-1950s. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that the modern fatale tells us the options of being a woman and getting power remain just as limited as they were back in 1944, when Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs with that honey of an anklet and murder on her mind.