This week Friday Film Review explores one of the most interesting female archetypes in the history of cinema; the sexual and mysterious Femme Fatale.
Seemingly out of nowhere she appears, standing seductively in the doorway. Sometimes she has a veil, always she has a cigarette. As the cigarette either hovers close to or dangles from her lips, she entrances the hero with her story of woe. You want to believe she’s telling a straight story, but then again what kind of fun would that be? Who is this beautiful, dangerous woman of mystery? She is the woman of film noir, the Femme Fatale. She’s also one of the most interesting female archetypes in the history of cinema.
Film Noir refers to crime dramas of a particularly cynical nature. The classical Film Noir period was American productions between the 40s and 50s; the dark tone of these films were initially a reaction to the insecurities of post Second World War American life. The harsh visual style of low key lighting and canted framing was inspired by the German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s.
The Femme Fatale was an extremely threatening character to 1940s and 50s American society. After a brief period of liberation during the war, society expected women to now head back to the kitchen (we all know how well that worked out). The Femme Fatale was a direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family; she was a woman who was independent, cunning and knowingly used her sexuality to her advantage.
In the case of film noir this would usually involve the self-destructive femme fatale leading the disillusioned and doomed male protagonist into committing murder or some other crime of passion while the two engaged in a twisted love affair. The femme fatale, who had transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would inevitably bring both of them to a downfall.
Just like the salon girl in the Western, being a sexually aware and independent woman almost always spells your demise in traditional American cinema. By the final reel the Femme Fatale has almost always tragically died. In the occasions when she does survive the film, it’s because she’s decided to change her naughty ways and become the submissive wife. Given her actions throughout the rest of the film, these endings are always enormously contrived and trite.
The best film noir are where the Femme Fatale goes out in a blaze of glory, deciding death a more fitting option than the stranglehold of domesticity. Film critic Janey Place writes in her essay Women in Film Noir;
It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality. . . . [T]he final “lesson” of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman. The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content, or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman.
So now you know what a kick ass character the femme fatale is, what film noir films should you be watching asap? Well here are just a few of the must see film noirs; The Maltese Falcon (1941) Double Indemnity (1944) Laura (1944) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) The Third Man (1949) and I leave you today with a clip from Gilda (1946) and my all time favorite femme fatale Rita Hayworth.