The Dark Art Of Seduction: Femme Fatales From Noir To Horror, And Back

'Your hand, your tongue, Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under 't.' - Lady Macbeth

'Appearances are deceptive.' - Aesop

The history of cinema is positively strewn with ‘femme fatales’ – alluring, seductive and dangerous women whose advances usually belie wounded psyches, the need for justice or vengence, or sometimes just bitter cruelty, who ensnare their lovers through sexual conquest, often leading them into compromising and deadly situations. ‘Femme fatale’ is French for ‘deadly woman’. Quite often these women were portrayed as somehow wronged and whose vengeance decimates all those who have wronged them. An archetypal character of literature, cinema and even art, the femme fatale is most frequently associated with Film Noir. Film Noir is a cinematic term used to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas – extremely popular throughout the 1940s and 50s – especially those that emphasized a particularly pessimistic outlook on the world, boasted characters that exhibited darkly sexual motivations and were stylishly filmed with moody lighting.

Typical Film Noir stories usually revolved around some sort of criminal investigation carried out by a private detective or amateur sleuth. Characters are usually presented as flawed and alienated. Certain archetypal characters reappear throughout many film noirs – one of which is the figure of the femme fatale.

Actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Jane Greer (Out of the Past), Rita Hayworth (Gilda) and Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) made names for themselves portraying femme fatales who tried to attain their hidden purpose by exploiting their sexuality and allure. Sometimes these women were also portrayed as victims of circumstance caught in situations from which she cannot escape. Other actresses who portrayed notorious femme fatales in more modern takes on film noir (often referred to as neo-noir) include Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction) and Kathleen Turner (Body Heat).

Of course, the perceived dangers of female sexuality can be traced back to Christian representations of Eve as a temptress whose self-serving actions bring about the fall of man. Womens' sexuality has historically been denied, 'othered' or outright repressed by patriarchal society. It was rendered something to be wary of, to be feared. Predatory female sexuality is rife throughout world mythologies (the sirens of Greek myths), early Western literature (Oscar Wilde’s Salome and the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette) and art. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, femme fatales were portrayed as vampiresses – hence the term ‘vamp’ – and succubae – and her power was her allure and charm and with these she drained, figuratively speaking, the metaphorical life-force of her lovers. Indeed, one of the first cinematic representations of this vampish femme fatale was Theda Bara in A Fool There Was – way back in 1915. In the 1930s and 40s, Hard-boiled detective fiction writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and Mickey Spillane created many memorable femme fatales and ensured she was a defining characteristic of Hard-Boiled conventions. These depictions of strong-willed, dangerous, untrustworthy and highly sexual women would have a huge influence on cinema and sure enough, it was during the 1940s and 50s that the femme fatale we recognise today began to flourish and become cemented – particularly in American cinema. As film noir grew in influence and popularity, so did the traits and distinctions of the archetypal femme fatale.

Nowadays the femme fatale is not just a staple of the film noir, she is a figure that has also become synonymous with the erotic thriller – an off-shoot of the neo-noir sub-genre. Neo-noir refers to crime dramas and mystery films that were produced from the mid-1960s onwards, and while they can’t really be considered true film noirs as they are shot in colour and do not always evoke the visual style of classic film noir, they still utilise the same themes, archetypes, and plots that film noirs did. The late Eighties and early Nineties for example, boasted a slew of big budget sexually charged erotic thrillers featuring big name stars seemingly all too eager to slip into something ‘more comfortable’ – usually as little as possible. This saw the return of the femme fatale in films such Body Heat, Single White Female, and perhaps most importantly, Fatal Attraction.

Fatal Attraction is the nightmarish tale detailing the dark implications of a one night stand gone wrong. Very wrong. Daniel Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful married New York attorney. He sleeps with his business acquaintance Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his wife and daughter are out of town. Bitterly regretting his passionate tryst with Alex, events soon become worse as Alex, who is revealed to have mental health issues and is psychologically unstable, forms a maniacal obsession with him, placing herself, Daniel and his family in great danger. Fatal Attraction is responsible for the term ‘bunny boiler’ which is used to describe a particularly obsessive and potentially dangerous individual. The film is also highly controversial because of its depiction of the femme fatale as someone who is mentally ill and clearly vulnerable. While there are definite issues with the character she plays, Close delivers a compelling and powerful performance, full of inner life and conviction. The film sporadically evokes sympathy for Alex – though the audience are supposed to side with unfaithful Daniel. Conservative morality wins out ultimately and Alex is eventually dispatched like some sort of salivating slasher villain. Glenn Close’s performance won her an Oscar nomination.

Fatal Attraction also belongs to a group of similarly themed films that came out in the early Nineties. The ‘cuckoo-in-the-nest’ films featured the plight of middle class American families whose idyllic white-picketed lives and lushly furnished homes have been shattered by the invasion of a deranged outsider (who only really wants to be accepted/find a friend/avenge a past misdeed) – usually with severe mental health issues. These outsiders come in the guise of psychotic nannies, roommates, lodgers and step-mothers. This cycle of ‘psychological thriller’ titles were essentially big budget blockbuster variations of slasher movie conventions. Titles included Single White Female, Pacific Heights, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Unlawful Entry, and most of them featured variations on the femme fatale. Even Made-for-TV movies got in on the action with a slew of titles including Preying Mantis (starring Jane Seymour in an against type role as a serial killer) and The Perfect Wife all featuring vengeful femme fatales involved with convoluted plots to either further their own gain or help them obtain bloody revenge for a past misdeed.

One of the big erotic thrillers of the Nineties was of course Basic Instinct. When a former rock star is brutally stabbed to death with an ice pick, during sex nonetheless, Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas again) is sent to investigate. The main suspect is best-selling author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a beautiful and somewhat mysterious young woman. The further Nick investigates her past, the more he becomes locked in a deadly cat and mouse game, and when he falls for her his life begins to fall apart. Notorious for the scene in which Stone’s character is interrogated by a roomful of burly cops, only to silence them and gain the upper hand by simply uncrossing and recrossing her legs revealing a lack of underwear beneath her skirt.

While certainly not as box office friendly as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, another erotic thriller from the early Nineties is camp cult favourite Poison Ivy. Starring Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert, Poison Ivy features Barrymore in provocative vamp mode and attempting to move in on Gilbert’s father and become the new matriarch of her friend’s family. Poison Ivy was directed by Katt Shea (who would later go on to direct The Rage: Carrie 2) and was succeeded by a number of sequels – Poison Ivy II, Poison Ivy: The New Seduction and Poison Ivy IV: The Secret Society. Whilst the sequels all headed straight to DVD they were still a massive hit amongst fans that were still obviously salivating for more. The series’ knowing campness and highly charged scenes of sexual prowess combined with overwrought revenge schemes and sociopathic anti-heroines appears to be a winning formula. The last instalment, Poison Ivy: The Last Seduction featured the exploits of Violet – sister of the original ‘Poison Ivy’ from the first film. She has her sights sight on destroying the family of her childhood friend Joy, whose father Violet holds responsible for tearing her own family apart. The Poison Ivy films were springboards for several actresses including Jaime Pressly and Alyssa Milano and of course the first film helped Drew Barrymore reinvent herself and establish some distance between the roles she portrayed as a younger actress. The success of the series is undoubtedly due to its unabashed willingness to be as daring and trashy as it can be and still have fun. According to film editor John Rosenberg, who worked on the third instalment of the series, as well as on titles such as The Convent and Body Count: “They reinforce the risk and potential bad consequences for men who get involved with seductresses.”(See below for full interview).

The femme fatale has often been condemned as a misogynistic representation of women in certain readings, though more recently, criticism on film noir has recognised the role of the femme fatale as an empowering and liberated one, citing the likes of Bette Davis and Kathleen Turner as examples of strong women in genre films. The femme fatale has also found her way into contemporary pop culture in the guise of the various heroines and anti-heroines of comics, films, books and video games. DC’s Catwoman is the perfect embodiment of what it is to be a femme fatale – whilst intelligent, alluring and powerful, she is also ambiguous and possibly untrustworthy. She gets what she wants her own way.
Most recently Cody Diablo penned Jennifer’s Body – which, amongst other things (including peer pressure, friendship, the pressures and anxieties faced by young women in high school and wider society), features aspects of the ‘seduction horror’ flick. It wears its influences on its bloodied sleeve and has generated the next incarnation of the femme fatale as demonically possessed school girl.

In all her guises and various incarnations – from 'The Vamp' to the 'Bunny Boiler' to the 'Demonically Possessed Prom Queen', the smouldering glances, devious conniving and deceptive intentions of the femme fatale look like they’ll be with us for some time to come. Proving to be one of cinema’s most compelling archetypes, she has what it takes to slink along with the times, making herself irresistible to generation after generation…

Interview With John Rosenberg

As the editor of titles such as Poison Ivy 3, The Convent and Body Count, John Rosenberg is no stranger to piecing together dark tales of sex, violence and mayhem. I caught up him to ask him about the ongoing fascination cinema audiences have with the mysterious and alluring figure of the femme fatale.

The Convent
Can you tell me about your involvement and role as editor on Poison Ivy 3?

Rosenberg: I’d worked with the director, Kurt Voss, on a previous film, Horseplayer, which became a popular selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Kurt and I got along great — I really liked his edgy, offbeat style and he appreciated my editing, so he gave me free rein in cutting Poison Ivy. I’d worked on bigger budget films before then, including Prancer with Sam Elliott and the Alan Rudolph film, Made in Heaven, and I didn’t expect much from this one except the fun of working with Kurt. I don’t think either of us imagined it would become this cult film that people would still be watching years later.

In terms of the editing, the film revolved, for me, around the pool scene where Jaime Pressly strips naked and goes for an early morning swim while her childhood friend’s father watches from the upstairs window. It was a perfectly erotic femme fatale moment because you knew she knew the father was watching and he had no idea that this is the beginning of his end. I decided to cut the scene more as a montage joined to music than a strict narrative sequence. Through the juxtaposition of shots you see the father enjoying this guilty pleasure, a term that Maxim magazine gave to the entire movie, and Violet skinny dipping. I found an 18th century aria, a quite ethereal piece, to place against the scene. It evoked a sense that the father, for a brief moment between his coffee and heart medicine and scurrying off to work, was experiencing his version of heaven. At one point he’s distracted by the maid and Violet leaves the pool unnoticed. When the father looks back expecting to see Violet, she’s gone. Except there was no shot of the empty pool. So I combed through a bunch of takes and found one where the camera was lining up for the shot of the pool with Jaime Pressly, but she hadn’t found her mark yet. It was before the slate. I grabbed the shot and stuck it on the end of the scene, before the final shot of the father’s disappointed face. When I showed the scene to the director and producers they loved it. I don’t think we ever changed a frame of it, which is rare. The composer, however, went a different direction with the music.

A fourth instalment of the series was recently released. Why do you think the series is still on going? What do you think the appeal is to fans?

Rosenberg: Frankly, I was surprised to see it resurrected after so many years. I thought Poison Ivy 3 had finally nailed the franchise. But I guess there’s always a new crop of teenage boys who’d like to see a film like this. I think Jaime Pressly was terrific in Poison Ivy 3. When I teach at UCLA or The Art Institute many of the college guys tell me it was one of their favourite films growing up.

Why do you think the figure of the ‘femme fatale’ is still so captivating and compelling for audiences?

Rosenberg: Because there is some truth in it. And it incorporates two elements that moviegoers seem to like – sex and violence. Also, although these films are often edgy, they’re actually more like cautionary tales that uphold the status quo of conventional relationships. They reinforce the risk and potential bad consequences for men who get involved with seductresses. And visa versa for the women who play that role.

Do you have a particular favourite ‘femme fatale’?

Rosenberg: Other than Poison Ivy 3, my favourites include Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Barbara Stanwyk in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. One of my top votes for femme fatale however, is Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential – a wonderful performance played, for the most part, contrary to the genre’s stereotype.

Can you tell us about any projects that you are currently working on?

Rosenberg: I’m writing a book about modern film editing which will be published later this year by Focal Press (Poison Ivy 3 will surely be mentioned in it!) and editing a feature documentary for a company out of New York. The doc is full of fascinating and quirky characters, which I like. And the city plays a significant role as well. A bit of a departure from the thriller genre!


Simon said…
Good piece. That it all.
Anonymous said…
Must go read now! I love your gender based introspection.
Unknown said…
Really great article. You discussed the progression the the femme fatale very well!
George said…
You have interesting posts. I will visit your blog.

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