ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
What do you see? Look again.
A photographer, his work plastered up on a giant poster, larger than life. Two look-alikes, one presumed dead, the other barely alive, both in need of a new life, a new path, a new identity. So they blur together: the temptress, the victim, the predator, the prey.
Who are we? Are we what we see, are we how we see, are we our perspective? Or are we how others see us? Maybe we don't want to be what others see in us, but how can we escape that projected vision when it's plastered up on giant posters?
The femme fatale is structured around a contradiction—that she is simultaneously both predator and prey—and this contradiction is founded upon her misperception by others, it is rooted in being misunderstood, in being misidentified. She is seen (by men; by society) as the victim, the wife trapped in a loveless marriage, the asthmatic without an inhaler, but this appearance is a lure to trap her targets. The femme fatale is a liberating feminist symbol because it uses men's (mis-)perception against them, it takes their sexist assumption that surely this fragile little girl could only possibly be the prey in this scenario, surely she's not orchestrating everything from behind the scenes.
De Palma takes this liberating feminist symbol and focuses his representation of it on perception and looking and gaze in a way that makes it feel like one of Argento's gialli. Antonio Banderas is a looker, a photographer, a man paid to produce images of others. He is a man who wields the gaze. Rebecca Romijn is a doppelgänger, not just any woman but a woman who looks exactly like another woman, a woman whose identity is fundamentally indeterminate from her appearance. She is a woman who can be looked at but not seen.
Going any deeper risks dipping into spoiler territory, but I love movies that examine the emancipatory potential of appearances, and Femme Fatale mixes these ideas with identity politics, with the question of who we are both for ourselves and for the Other, and with sexual politics, with an examination of how misogynist men believe in the absolute truth of what they see and how that can be used against them.
Plus it wouldn't be De Palma without a series of next-level split-screen and split-diopter shots and not-so-subtle references to Hitchcock. The opening scene reminded me why his Mission: Impossible is still the best one *and* it has the best riff on a Psycho shot I think I've *ever* seen. A dude is peering through a peephole with a laparoscopic lens, technology built expressly for extending his gaze, empowering his Look, but it's taken down by a puny little cat.
And that's just everything right there, isn't it? Men with their phallic gaze are overpowered by a sly feline.
Right on the edge of five stars with this one. Really need to do a De Palma retrospective; it's been so long since I've seen so many of my favorites of his, and part of the reason I hesitate to rate this higher is that it would mean rating them above his other classics, but maybe those need to be higher too… Hopefully a project for another time.