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Fatale Detraction

Beyond cheap turn-ons, there's nothing to recommend Brian De Palma's latest

It's possible that Brian De Palma's latest movie is more ironic than the director realizes. Femme Fatale features a down-on-her-luck mother who was "replaced" seven years ago by her less benevolent, reputation-destroying, jewel-stealing doppelgänger (both are played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who was apparently recommended to De Palma by Rollerball director John McTiernan). When you look at De Palma's output, it becomes increasingly more believable that De Palma himself was replaced seven years ago by an evil double out to savage what remained of the once-acclaimed auteur's dwindling rep. How else to explain Mission: Impossible (the plot wasn't complicated, people, just stupid), Mission to Mars (I've seen more realistic Martians in vending machines) or Snake Eyes (an accurate title when it came to quality and box office)? De Palma, of course, would blame the American studio system and its constraints for those movies' flaws, which is why he went to France to make Femme Fatale. And it is better than those other films. But not by much.

The story opens with a heist at the Cannes Film Festival. This being ersatz French cinema, much of the heist action is required to involve scenes at urinals, but for all the guys in the house, we also get a nice little dose of HLA (hot lesbian action) between Romijn-Stamos and a nearly naked fashion model. There's also a fat French guy with a stereotypical Asterix-like mustache, and a welcome performance by magnetic Lumumba star Eriq Ebouaney. Unfortunately, it's all set to a conspicuous score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, one that doesn't let up and can't decide if it's retro or experimental. Either way, it's annoying.

At any rate, the heist sequence is kinda fun, but the story goes downhill afterward, as Romijn-Stamos escapes and conveniently meets her exact doppelgänger who -- just as conveniently -- dies shortly thereafter. This allows the American jewel thief to become bereaved French housewife Lily, marry an ambassador and seemingly live the next seven years of her life maintaining a fake Gallic accent. Some of this stuff seems clearly intended as a joke, but it's never quite apparent how much.

The action resumes when "Lily" returns to France with her ambassador hubby and catches the eye of a down-and-out photographer (Antonio Banderas) who stands to make some good money from tabloid shots of her. Meanwhile, in another locale labeled "Prison Road, South of France" (to save De Palma the effort of having to actually show a prison), fellow jewel thief Ebouaney is set free, still wearing his freshly bloodstained tux from the heist.

Needless to say, Banderas and Romijn-Stamos get involved, professionally and otherwise, most notably in a lap dance sequence that's worth the price of a video rental some months from now. Now here's the shocker: She may be double-crossing him! Not that he doesn't deserve it -- anyone who falls for the seduction line "All your boyhood stories make you so damn lovable" has to be pretty dense. He seems sort of aware that he's being double-crossed but doesn't manage to prepare for the inevitable very well.

De Palma comes across as quite pleased with himself, especially over a credulity-stretching finale invoking fate and chaos theory that may have been partially inspired by Memento. Though it involves an absolutely idiotic turn of events, it culminates in a sequence that's well choreographed, repeating certain motifs in a way that may make you want to go back and watch certain scenes over again -- providing you've already blanked on how tedious they were the first time. He's planted clues to the ending throughout, whether or not they make sense: A poster that's constantly being torn down in the background depicts Romijn-Stamos's face and the title "Deja Vue 2008," despite the fact that her character has allegedly never been photographed in France.

A minor pet peeve, notable primarily because it has become a De Palma trend, also needs to be addressed: Don't use the Internet as a plot point if you don't understand it in the least. Many laughed at Mission: Impossible's implausible Net surfing and incorrect terminology; now more will laugh at the notion that a kidnapper would send a ransom note from a personal e-mail address. Yes, it's supposed to be a frame-up, but no crook would be that stupid.

Romijn-Stamos is competent as an actor, even granted lines like "America is a country very big, no?" and "You don't have to lick my ass, just fuck me!" but her best trait remains a proclivity for shedding clothes whenever the action calls for it (or doesn't, actually). Banderas, on the other hand, plays the photographer like the role his Spy Kids character was supposed to parody. (See Gary Cole in I Spy and ask yourself if he wouldn't have been at least more amusing herein.) Peter Coyote, as Romijn-Stamos's ambassador husband, acquits himself the best, giving multiple layers to his relatively minor character. It's about time he showed up again in a real movie.

 
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