"Picking up a self-help book entitled 10 Easy Steps To Make A Man Fall in Love With You will by no means transform any average woman into a femme fatale”
A couple of nights ago while aimlessly flipping through the channels I came across a scene that suspended my finger in mid-air preventing it from landing once more on the eager remote control button. It was Sharon Stone dressed in red, complete with red nail-polish and red stilettos, blonde hair slicked back, smoking a cigarette. The movie was Diabolique from 1996. I remember seeing it when it first came out, but considering that more than 10 years have passed since, I decided to watch it again with an older, wiser, more critical pair of eyes and laid the remote-control to a well-deserved rest.
For those who haven’t seen Diabolique here is my brief description: it is a remake of a French film noir named Les Diaboliques meaning ‘The Devils.’ Set in an all-boys boarding school the plot revolves around a love triangle, the three sides of which are the husband and head-master played by Chazz Paliminteri, the ex-nun and wife played by Isabella Adjani, and the sultry mistress and teacher played by none other than Sharon Stone. After having had enough of Paliminteri's abusive character the two women devise a plan to murder him. After thinking they have actually gotten away with it the body disappears and suspicious events start to occur.
I will stop right there because I do not intend on giving away the ending and also the plot is not really what this article is about. What caught my interest was the role that Sharon Stone was playing. Her character conveniently named ‘Nicole Horner’ is that of the cunning, seductively beautiful and sexually forthright woman. She speaks softly, charms her way through man, woman and child, doesn’t take no for an answer and wherever she goes the trail of cigarette smoke follows. Nicole Horner is the classic Hollywood Femme Fatale.
The femme fatale made her appearance in Hollywood in the 1940s in the period where studios were churning out murder mysteries by the dozen. Femme fatale is French for ‘deadly woman’ and just like the word, the character was also conceived in France. The character was created to rebel against the typical-female roles of the time. She was fashioned to be the antithesis of the wholesome woman. Confident, cunning, seductive and adamant on getting what she wants regardless of the consequences. A black widow who does not succumb to societal roles and although threatening to the male psyche, she is absolutely irresistible to him. At the time of her introduction to the world it was liberating for women everywhere to witness such a strong female unabashedly appearing on the silver screen.
Actresses like Anna Savage in Apology for Murder (1945), Rita Hayworth as The Lady of Shanghai (1948), Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953) and throughout the 90s Sharon Stone in movies such as Basic Instinct and Diabolique, have introduced and immortalised the image of the femme fatale in cinema. But it pretty much stops there.
The femme fatale has lost her way and has not been seen since. Of course there were and still are many strong female characters in cinema but not quite the femme fatale, not portrayed in all her heavily made-up glory. So where did she go? She was a fantasy that was created to accommodate for a need, she was taboo but that’s just it, she was. The fantasy has become a reality. The femme fatale no longer appears because we no longer need her. The industry might be under the impression that with the likes of Oprah, Madonna and Carla Bruni the world has seen its share of powerful women. There is no mysterious aura about them and as far as I know they don’t even smoke therefore the femme fatale is nothing but an urban legend.
When sex-appeal is being marketed to a target demographic made up of 16 year old boys the package will surely include a cheerleader, a Chihuahua and a hackneyed plot. No mystery, no intrigue, hell not even a hint of the ever alluring smoke. Or maybe, nowadays every woman walks around believing that by showing a bit of flesh she too is a femme fatale? Picking up a self-help book entitled 10 Easy Steps To Make A Man Fall in Love With You will by no means transform any average woman into a femme fatale. Perhaps the only ones to gain from such books are the authors themselves.
The femme fatale has an innate passion and drive and exudes an aura that cannot be learned in 10 steps or even 100, simply because it cannot be taught. Her weapons are her's alone and whether or not I agree with the way she uses them, I have much respect for her presence and will. Because if indeed a man used her same weapons we would label him ambitious, driven and view him in a less darker light than we do our femme fatale. Femme fatale must make a comeback because although women today can achieve what they desire using more direct methods, the world is a less exciting place without her. Therefore, this piece is dedicated to the blonde hair, the red lipstick, the husky voice and the fading flicker of a cigarette.
This article was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on May 1, 2009.