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The Contemporary Femme Fatale
The Contemporary Femme Fatale
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The Contemporary Femme Fatale

Gender, Genre and American Cinema

Katherine Farrimond

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Contemporary Femme Fatale

Gender, Genre and American Cinema

Katherine Farrimond

About This Book

The femme fatale occupies a precarious yet highly visible space in contemporary cinema. From sci-fi alien women to teenage bad girls, filmmakers continue to draw on the notion of the sexy deadly woman in ways which traverse boundaries of genre and narrative. This book charts the articulations of the femme fatale in American cinema of the past twenty years, and contends that, despite her problematic relationship with feminism, she offers a vital means for reading the connections between mainstream cinema and representations of female agency. The films discussed raise questions about the limits and potential of positioning women who meet highly normative standards of beauty as powerful icons of female agency. They point towards the constant shifting between patriarchal appropriation and feminist recuperation that inevitably accompanies such representations within mainstream media contexts.



Part I


1 The Femme Fatale Who Wasn’t There

The femme fatale of retro noir can be pictured through a number of resonant images and aesthetic flashes. The femme fatale is so frequently presented in textures of retro glamour: sequins, shining hair, rippling silks, furs, sleek tailoring and the type of makeup that might be understood as ‘grownup’. Even when the femme fatale appears in a contemporary setting, her style often gestures towards the past. Those contemporary films that are set in the era of classical Hollywood cinema are often marketed heavily on just this kind of dangerous feminine glamour. It is with this tendency in mind that I begin this book with two chapters that explore the relationship between the femme fatale and retro noir. In researching this part of the book, I was consistently confounded by films set in the 1940s and 1950s that are far from subtle in deploying these aesthetics, but that ultimately defuse the potential of this look over the course of their narratives. Put more simply, the films that looked like they would be about a femme fatale turned out not to be. In this chapter, I explore the implications of these femme fatales who weren’t there in relation to the politics of retro, nostalgia and glamour.

Defining Retro Noir

Before I delve into representations of the femme fatale in these films in more detail, a word about historicity and terminology is needed. In this chapter, and in Chapter 2, I use the term ‘retro’ to mean a particular articulation of the past in film that delights in post-war period details, in reworking older narratives and styles, in incorporating previous structures of feeling, while not attempting a wholesale, realist or fully authentic depiction of an exact point in time. Instead, these films employ an elastic relationship with the past in different ways to create noir atmospheres. This might be assembled through black and white images and 1940s-inflected costume, combined with anachronistic details, as in the cordless phones with telescopic aerials and 1970s cars of the Sin City films (2005 and 2014), or through a more historically realist aesthetic – meticulous period costumes, props and interiors – combined with stylistic choices not found in classical noir, such as the rich colour film, location photography, and sultry jazz-scores of L.A. Confidential (1997) or Devil in a Blue Dress (1995).
Elizabeth E. Guffey describes retro as assuming ‘an iconic status, denoting an undefined time gone by’, and more specifically, as ‘shorthand for a period style situated in the immediate post-war years’ (2006, p. 9). Retro, she argues, ‘quotes styles from the past, but applies them in anomalous settings: it regards the past from a bemused distance’ (2006, p. 12). In this respect, retro can be seen as a term which incorporates both period films, and films that are not explicitly set in the classic noir period of the 1940s or 1950s but which rely heavily on an aesthetic of pastness. Retro also acknowledges that those period films employing a more realist historical and geographical setting are themselves engaging in a more complex negotiation between past and present than that realism might initially suggest.
Despite the production of the bulk of the most famous and canonical of classical Hollywood noirs taking place in the 1940s, most retro noir films collapse this into a more broadly defined long 1950s, employing an atmosphere of post-war reconstruction alongside the material benefits of economic boom and its accompanying luxuries and aesthetic pleasures. Sprengler usefully distinguishes between the ‘1950s’ to denote the actual decade between 1950 and 1959, and ‘The Fifties’, which she describes as a ‘mythic, nostalgic construct’ (2009, p. 39), adding that ‘it is worth noting that the Fifties typically extends to 1963 and Kennedy’s assassination which signalled, for many, the end of an era’ (2009, p. 64). I would add that ‘The Fifties’ also tends to extend back to the mid-1940s, taking in the post-war period too. The use of fiftiesness within these films enables the deployment of a range of reference points and sensibilities to produce particular meanings about femininity, as I will outline in this chapter.

The Politics of Nostalgia

I want to employ an understanding of nostalgia that can work to different political ends, sometimes in the same film, but that cannot simply be dismissed as empty or conservative. However, the critical relationship between nostalgia and politics is tense, contradictory and full of accusation. For example, historical cinema has often been held up as a ‘bad object’ because of associations between nostalgia and conservatism. Fredric Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ (1998), and Jean Baudrillard’s ‘History: A Retro Scenario’ (1994) position cinema nostalgic about the mid-twentieth century as complicit in reinforcing neoconservative values. They also refer to it as flattening out history, privileging ‘the way things used to be’ as a preferred state of affairs. In these accounts, films such as American Graffiti (1973), and The Last Picture Show (1971), as well as those that update noir films, like Body Heat (1981), are presented as evidence of the conservatism of nostalgia. However, I want to suggest that while nostalgic cinema can certainly firm up conservative ideals, this is not its only function. In the films I discuss here, there are spikes of vibrant potential, rather than the flattened surface described by postmodern theorists.
Chase and Shaw’s collection The Imagined Past begins with what they describe as their own initially ‘combative’ attitude to nostalgia in late 1980s Britain, but ultimately aims to rethink nostalgia as potentially constructive and forward thinking, so that nostalgia emerges under the same conditions of hope for a better future as utopia (1989, p. 1). Their wish is to explore an approach to nostalgia which is ‘personal and affectionate’, which gains meaning through a connectedness with ‘the object of scrutiny, perhaps through kinship or through a broader feeling of identity, such as class affiliation. These were in some way my people and my present was bound up in their past’ (1989, p. 2).1 Nostalgia, therefore, can be understood as a way of connecting past and present in productive, optimistic moments of acknowledgement and familiarity for marginalised groups. In this context, the femme fatale might be understood as a flashpoint of feminine power and potential that might be looked back on with a sense of recognition and hope, what Elizabeth Freeman calls ‘mining the present for signs of undetonated energy from past revolutions’ (2010, p. xvi).
Within Cultural Studies, Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia can be productive, not only consigned to conservative impulses. What she terms ‘reflective nostalgia’, a playful, ironic, humorous nostalgia that might allow us to look back at unrealised possibilities by tearing apart, recombining, examining the gaps in the past (2001). Here, the distance between a nostalgic looking back, and a utopian hoping forward collapses, so that nostalgia offers the opportunity to explore roads untaken. This is reliant on a playfulness rather than any attempt to perfectly recreate a ‘better’ past as-new. This mode of nostalgia chimes more with what Peter Ruppert, drawing on Richard Dyer, argues of cinematic utopia as something found in ‘fleeting moments of hope, a yearning for something better, a desire for other possibilities’ (1996, p. 140).

Retro Noir Politics

So what is at stake in the particular return to film noir and mid-century America? The 1950s can serve, as Todd McGowan argues ‘as a prelapsarian site upon which contemporary subjects can project all their nostalgic yearnings for social stability and strong authority’, for an idealised period before civil rights, second-wave feminism and gay liberation complicated the imagined comfort of suburban bliss and the nuclear family (2007, p. 114). However, keeping in mind the potential of nostalgia to do more than merely imply that things were better ‘back then’, how might the retro noir film offer a kind of political potential and resistance?
Although the retro noir film genre extends back as far as 1974’s Chinatown,2 the 1990s and 2000s saw a more intensive proliferation of these period crime texts. It is significant that retro noir began to gain momentum in the 1990s immediately after the height of idealistic 1950s nostalgia of the 1970s and 1980s.3 Roberta Garrett notes that ‘the relatively rapid shift from the conservative idealisation of past gender roles in 1980s portrayals of the period to the obsessive concern with issues of race, class and gender manifested in more recent cinematic depictions of fiftiesness’ (2007, p. 191). The post-Reaganite climate of cinematic critique and reinvestigation of the past beginning in the 1990s is arguably responsible for the rise of the retro noir film in which the image of Fifties America as a nostalgic fantasy of white middle class heteronormativity is interrogated and disrupted.
For Sprengler, the retro aesthetics of many of these films indicate their potential for subversion. She describes the influence of a ‘lounge’ style, inspired by Ratpack Hollywood glamour that occupies a liminal space between the stylish and the squalid and argues that ‘[m]any of the props central to Lounge appear in the “Hollywood Fifties”, a noirish version of urban America that uses silver screen glamour to cloak the anxieties, fears and bigotry lurking just beneath the surface’ (2009, p. 42). It is this friction between reverence for the past and revulsion at its dark secrets that allow for an exciting potential for a feminist line of enquiry into the retro noir film. This preoccupation with the tension between Hollywood glamour and its murky underside would suggest that the retro noir film may provide a site for questioning gender politics, retelling archetypal narratives about evil women and hard boiled detectives through a critical contemporary lens. The retro noir film is fixated with an impulse to depict what the original noir films could not, and what the nostalgia films of the 1980s would not. In a response to the censorial production environments of classic noir texts, and the normative middle class whiteness of the 1970s and 1980s texts, retro noir aims to showcase the grit and corruption of noir, bringing the racism and classism of the period to the surface.
The term ‘retrovision’ was coined by Deborah Cartmell, I.Q. Hunter and Imelda Whelehan to describe such alternate versions of history, who state that
“Time perception”, we are told, is strictly contingent on the perceiver’s social position and lived experience. Declaring one version of history true, from this perspective, is a strategic ploy to create a subversive countermyth about the past. We came up with the word “retrovision” to describe how some recent films and novels construct such countermyths.
(2001, pp. 1–2)
Retro noir films function in this way as retrovisions in that their efforts to retell old stories ‘as they really were’ offer political interventions into the past, and into earlier retellings of that past.4 It is this potential for the disruption of previous narratives of noir and of Fifties nostalgia that places the retro noir film in a precarious position for a feminist reading. If the retro noir films at once delight in Fifties nostalgia, and deconstructs the very noir stories that they retell, where does this leave the femme fatale? Might one of the most enduring figures of powerful femininity be watered down on her home turf? Or could the disruptive potential of the noir retrovision allow for a complex retelling of her story which moves beyond gold diggers and spider women who live by night?

Dressing the Retro Femme

Costume plays an important part in the identification of the femme fatale, and the retro noir film provides the opportunity to revisit the costumes that constructed the classic noir femme fatale characters.5 Vera Dika suggests that ‘what is significant is not just that the nostalgia film returns to old stories, but also that they return to old film genres, and to those genres’ imagistic and narrative signifying systems’ (2003, p. 10). These characters can be identified as femme fatales because they conform to the visual systems we have come to associate with classic film noir. They look the part and appear within the correct period and tonal settings. Jane Gaines notes that ‘[i]n popular discourse there is often no distinction between a woman and her attire. She is what she wears’ (1990, p. 1; emphasis in the original). This formulation that costume, including hair and makeup, indicates all that needs to be known about women is relied upon in the retro noir film to present women as femme fatales using little more than a slick of red lipstick, and a flash of leg from under a sophisticated vintage ensemble. This is not to say, however, that these films are simply using costume as lazy shorthand for the femme fatale in order to render their films more authentically noirish. Rather, I contend that these films are relying on the common use of the aforementioned iconography – in fashion, advertising, cinema and television – as a way of indicating the deadly woman, in order that they may then complicate that assumption.
The retro noir film frequently uses promotional materials to summon the idea of the femme fatale before the film has even begun. This is perhaps most powerfully exemplified by images of Kim Basinger in pale satin, red lipstick and glittering, confrontational gaze on the promotional materials for L.A. Confidential. The most widely disseminated of promotional images for the film features Lynn Bracken (Basinger) in the foreground, taking up the entire left side of the image, in a white dress with prominent cleavage, blonde hair worn in a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo style and red lipstick. The tagline reads ‘Everything Is Suspect… Everyone Is For Sale… And Nothing Is What It Seems…’. The effect of the foregrounding of this sexy and powerful image of Lynn next to the tag lines is to present her as untrustworthy, gold-digging and deceptive.
Similarly, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is presented as a femme fatale from the title of Devil in a Blue Dress onwards. The title not only aligns evil with femininity, but does so in the noirish context provided by the hard-boiled title. The most widely disseminated poster for Devil is stylistically very similar to that of L.A. Confidential with its murky Los Angeles backdrop and yellowish brown tints, but this time it is the hero, Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington), whose head and shoulders take up the majority of space, while Daphne is much smaller in a full-body shot behind him. This positioning has much to do with star value – at the time of the films’ release, Washington and Basinger were arguably their biggest stars – yet even in the background, Daphne is still presented as a femme fatale type. She is mostly in shadow, and is lit in a way that highlights her long wavy hair, cocked hip, long legs and cigarette. She is positioned in front of two unidentifiable men, one standing up and pointing a gun at the other who is lying on the ground, suggesting the kind of impassive relationship with death and criminality found in the femme fatales of Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947).
This trading on the marketable image of the femme fatale continues in more recent retro noir films. The DVD cover of Where the Truth Lies (2005) employs a very similar approach to the L.A. Confidential poster, while its poster incorporates a shot of the naked back of its star, Alison Lohman, her lower half wrapped in a red sheet, and her hair a luminous wavy gold. That Lohman’s character in the film is a redhead who plays a character not primarily characterised by her sultry sex appeal in the film itself does not seem to be an issue for the film’s promotional materials. Lonely Hearts (2006) also uses this approach to promotion, as Salma Hayek appears as Martha Beck, more famously known as one half of the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ who embarked on a series of murders in the late 1940s. Hayek’s appearance on the poster as a slim and smoulderingly glamorous temptress contrasts sharply with her real-life counterpart, and with Shirley Stoler’s portrayal of Beck in the 1969 drive-in classic, The Honeymoon Killers. The decision to cast Hayek as the famously obese Beck, and to style her in the over-familiar visual language of the femme fatale, points to a desire to capitalise on the figure as a marketable commodity.
In my most recent example, Gangster Squad (2013), Emma Stone’s character is presented in full retro glamour in a red evening dress, waved hair, sparkling jewellery and red lipstick. In one poster, she appears at the centre of the composite image, warmly toned against the cool grey suits of the detectives and gangsters around her. While they hold weapons, her glamour, it is implied through the fiery blaze from which she emerges, is her weapon. The back of the Blu-ray cover features Stone in a more coquettish pose next to the pull-quote ‘a gritty, sexy thriller’, the side split in the dress referencing Jessica Rabbit, the ultimate pastiche femme fatale. This sample of promotional materials, ...

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APA 6 Citation
Farrimond, K. (2017). The Contemporary Femme Fatale (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Farrimond, Katherine. (2017) 2017. The Contemporary Femme Fatale. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Farrimond, K. (2017) The Contemporary Femme Fatale. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Farrimond, Katherine. The Contemporary Femme Fatale. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.