The Femme Fatale Image in Cinema
Some early scientists relegated women to a category somewhere above monkeys, yet below men, and the poet Milton observed that women are “a fair defect of nature”
However these were the pseudoscientific notions about female variable and vulnerability, and were used to justify sexism and discrimination in society. Perceptive out of such frustrations rose the concept of a woman who defied her stereotypical image and donned the garb of someone who is just the opposite of the popular concept, which was more or less forced upon her. The phrase femme fatale is French for ‘deadly women’ and was created to project a social democratic revolb against the oppressiveness of the Victorian age, where women were constricted in a corset and pushed into claustrophobic ideologies and a shrunken introverted world.
She took an avatar of a female who has been created to break men’s heart and to lead herself into a sunlight world. These femme fatales are allowed to have it all; power, sexuality, femininity and wealth, but they keep hankering for love and would often face a bad end because they defied the conventions. The astonished man, who had earlier created an ideal woman from his own wishful imagination, suddenly meets someone who he can not control or understand. He labels her as the ‘bad woman’; the woman who must die or be banished because she is not the representative of his idealistic image.
Disillusioned with men and frustrated of a circumscribed life, this figure of a deadly femme fatale / vamp- emerged as a central figure in the nineteenth century and became one of the most persistent personifications of modern female. “Who is she?” was the popular query. And the enigmatic answers would be: “She is the woman who never really is what she seem to be”
However, Hollywood found a way to bring out the femme fatale from the narrow confines of the stereotype seductress who just does not resort to narcissism and duplicity to have her way. The femme fatale is also the beleaguered hero’s helpmate sometimes. She is often shown as supporting him and believing in his innocence, or his ability to solve the problems. The figure of the good-bad girl combines the sexual stimulation of the femme fatale with the fundamental decency of a wife or a lover. She can appear to be cynical, wayward and obsessed with money, but this stems from disillusionment with men and the frustrations of a constrained life.
Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) are perfect example of the type. They are cool, terse, sexually assured and independent women, and yet remain on the hero’s side. To the hero they offer a slightly stunning image and allow him to feel relaxed in their company, just like they would feel with a male companion. The good-bad girls have the masculine and feminine qualities merged together and although they appear two-faced, like the typical femme fatale, they do prove themselves to be loyal. If they can not help the hero, they can support him and believe in his ability to solve problems. The best and most complex example of this type is Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
The bad women of cinema went through a noticeable transformation over the next decades and the hideously prominent false eye lashes, hard contact lenses, huge wigs, feather gowns and shimmering two piece dresses are replaced by the more chic and contemporary get-ups. They are no more limited to being the cabaret dancers, or a gangster’s moll. The fun, fearless female is played by the female protagonist now, and she has emerged as the voluptuous, deeply alluring and convincingly sexy woman who knows her mind. She is also subtle, clever, sophisticated and extremely patient, waiting for the right time to strike, just like a predator.
One of the best examples of such a woman is of Famke Janssen as Xenia Ouatappo in Golden Eye (1995).
She is like none other so far. Perceived as a classic representation of femme fatale she is the ‘black widow spider’ woman who devours her mate after sex. She gets her sexual satisfaction by killing unscrupulously. Watch her making love on a yacht, clad in a revealing lingerie and screaming Yes … Yes … YES !! … as she crushes the man’s chest between her thighs during orgasm.
Her sadistic sexual proclivities coupled with an absolute lack of conscience make her, the deadliest femme fatale.
As Bond says in the end – “She always enjoyed a good squeeze.”
Pick up the DVD of yesteryear films and you will surprisingly find the bold and dancing dance numbers that appear timeless even now. The women who played the femme fatale roles had a certain body type (read hour glass) and they were always dressed more glamorously and fashionably than the heroine. They were also the best dancers of that era.
The soft focus on the nurturer / homebuilder women
The position of women in the Indian film industry was earlier fraught with ambivalence: in those early years of cinema very few women were ready to let their photographed images appear on screen and allow thousands of unknown men’s eyes gaze at their pictures. Most of the women carried a cultural baggage of strict religious taboos, which did not allow them to display their bodies to the public. While such taboos have broken down gradually and now girls are queuing up in hoards to take their chance in films, one can not overlook the fact that the concept of bad girl, provocatively dressed, dangerous vamps came out of such beliefs that an ideal woman has to appear bashful, modest and should be covered from head to toe. She must appear as the virgin daughter who is protected all her life and then given ‘all intact’ to her husband to become a chaste wife, who raison d’etre is to worship her husband. The Indian heroines played such parts to perfection and it somewhat justified their entry into the big bad world of cinema, in which they described the ‘Ideal Indian Woman’ image to perfection, and then affirmed that they can not be faulted by being in films. The ideal woman was conventionally recognized as the picture of ‘oppressed womanhood’ and was reinstated by many female actors of the Indian cinema. The yesteryear Indian heroines played such parts to hilt, and projected the perfect antithesis to those femme fatales who tried to steal their husbands and lovers.
Here is a list of some of the bad girls having all the fun:
Demi Moore played an impressive role of a sexually frustrated boss in Disclosure (1994) who turns implacably revengeful when Michael Douglas spurns her advances.
In Fatal Attraction (1987) the script follows the tale of a one night stand turned sour and Glenn Close comes across as every married man’s worst nightmare, playing the role of an obsessed lover turned psychopath. She managed the role with considerable élan. Although her role can not be termed as the typical femme fatale, it did throw light on the stormy, mutinous side of a woman who would not compromise on anything if it comes to what she wants.
Uma Thurman bristled with untamed rage, in Kill Bill (2003). Consumed with revenge she moved about like a force of nature in action scenes, and despite a minor lack of physical grace, she handled the fights with much flair.
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft was smart, sexy, sassy and sophisticated in Tomb Raider (2001). She was near perfect in that aggressive and physically demanding role, and constantly the laughably fake breasts, she came up topper in the ultimate femme fatale role.
Pamela Lee Anderson as / in Barb Wire (1996) prevails over the baddies and gets more naked in the film than she had possibly been in her entire life taking showers. But she managed to pull off the femme fatale role impressively.
In Blade Trinity (2004) Jessica Biel with gun is a captivating sight, and she carries off the femme fatale role with talent and matching physicality. Despite the lackluster action and some atrocious dialogues in the film, she was an enchanting sight through.
In Underworld (2003) Kate Beckinsale is dressed in black leather, heavy boots, and carries a no nonsense attitude and a gun, with unflinching authority. She projects an enormous intensity and cold hatred with a perpetual scowl on her face, and her cold dark eyes, framed with deadly arched eyebrows give her the most effective femme fatale look.