What do we want with the femme fatale nowadays? With her bee-stung red lips and trailing lace negligee and forlorn blinking expression, she embodies romanticised plotlines of the 19th century. Her very existence, floating in and out of a man’s world, serving to distract them from their paths, alludes to gender perceptions and relations in our time-old narratives. She is both beautiful and repulsive at the same time: the living oxymoron of desire. The emotional and irrational embodiment set against the practical and rational.
She may be an old bird, but she has a timeless appeal, it seems, for audiences and filmmakers alike. But surely a character that is seen through the lens of the male eye in such a sexualised way only serves to reiterate gender binaries and misogynistic view points? For, to me, there is no part more pathetic or degrading to a woman than the classic femme fatale, born in the Great Depression, blossoming in a turbulent post-war period as an exciting distraction for frustrated people, existing only in the arousal of some man’s genitals, and getting punished by death more often than not for toying with things she can’t possibly understand (stupid hussy! Chuh)…
But the seductrice has, of course, evolved. We can now see glimmers in cinema of the stereotype being played upon to explore the complexity of the female psyche. It is the duality that the role offers – the opportunity for the leading lady to play two characters in one film – that I think gives it this timeless appeal, and opens it up to new, more interesting possibilities of representation. What do we want with her? Perhaps a simulation of what women can and will do to survive in a male-heavy world.
The crux of this topic recently peaked, I think, in much-talked-about adaptation of the best-selling thriller Gone Girl by David Fincher, which caused a critical eruption in men and women alike discussing the misogynistic-not-so-misogynistic power play in the film (read our review here). Is Amy Dunne (played by the unusual choice that is Rosamund Pike) an utterly demonised stereotype of the psycho-bitch, and a backdrop against which nice-guy Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) can come out as the sane one? Or is she a commander of her sexuality who responds to situations not with feebleness but courage of conviction?
Let’s break down Gillian Flynn’s creation: Amy has, from the first, been something she isn’t. As is described in the novel, her parents plagiarised her childhood to sell the ‘Amazing Amy’ children’s books, which acted like a standard they were setting for their daughter that she could never quite meet. The Amy of the stories is always one step ahead of her. The actual Amy has been lost in a hurricane of a manufactured identity from a very young age. But there’s more to her childhood than this – she was the end result of a long string of miscarriages that her parents endured to finally get her. So the pressure of her existence is crushing. As she says herself in the novel, she never should have been born.
With a mastering of gender performances, Amy Dunne perfects how to play on every expectation people put on her. It is very telling that Flynn includes descriptions in Gone Girl – from Amy’s perspective – of different types of gender roles, such as the ‘cool girl’ who panders to her boyfriend’s every wish in order not to challenge his masculinity. This is something at the forefront of Amy’s mind, a conscious decision. It could be argued that it is at the forefront of most women’s minds…
Popular television hybrid ‘reality’-drama series aimed at women (The Only Way Is Essex, The Real Housewives of Orange County/Beverley Hills/Atlanta etc etc, Made In Chelsea, Jersey Shore…) are surely evidence of our absent-mindedness with different female characters, defined by various stereotypical aesthetics? If nothing else, these programmes prove that reality can be manufactured and performed to show a certain version of yourself, whilst claiming it to be reality. There is a very real appetite for it.
This trend is present in GG. Because of Amy’s overly self-aware persona, her character comes to us in the movie through a hazy, dream-like lens of some distance. The very first shot is of the back of her perfectly honeyed blonde head lying on Nick’s lap, like a sleeping lioness, and Nick’s voice over asks wonderingly what his wife is thinking. It is us, Nick, looking at her, Amy, and contemplating what’s going on in her mind, and the film proceeds to un pick it, showing us how complex she really is, what she’s capable of, and demonstrating how her powers of manipulation render Nick dumbfounded. There seems to be no facet of the world that Amy can’t bend into the shape of a certain woman to embody and conquer; it’s all about performance and perception.
This isn’t just a critique of the sordid desire of a sleasy affair or an immoral fling, as is a traditional film noir situation. What about the amorality of desiring your wife after she’s murdered someone and faked her own death? Within the folded bedsheets of a marriage it can be every bit as filthy, we are shown, when you strip them back. If you can manipulate desire, you have won the marriage game. The world we are thrown in to is not necessarily a Fincherly bleak one but a bare, unashamed one that challenges you to question things which we are raised to think are a given.
Ben Affleck was an excellent choice for the handsome, American, easy-going ‘nice guy’ Nick, with his expressionless face and plastic-looking grin. An equally good choice was Rosamund Pike, who embodies this complex woman with her natural air of enigma and authority. Pike has never really caught on to the hyper-celebrity culture of the modern world, and instead remains fluid in her film choices. She has perhaps consciously chosen in her recent years to opt out of becoming another fetishised leading lady in blockbuster movies which are made from similar perspectives. She has a maturity about her, and a depth, that Fincher was obviously drawn to. The unravelling of Amy’s master plan, her intelligence, her damaged past, out of the blonde blue-eyed bundle that we are first presented with, could only have been achieved with the right actress, and this was her.
Much criticism has been written about the portrayal of Amy Dunne as the stereotypical man’s-worst-nightmare who uses false accusations of rape and pregnancy to trap men. But there is one thing that Amy is not stereotypically, and that is a broken-hearted wife who punishes her husband with short-lived scorn, crumbles and then takes him back. In the end, it is Amy’s way of seeing things that prevails. She triumphantly brags to Nick about how he himself ‘begged for his life’ on National television, playing her game, manipulating perception, doing what he has to do to survive, which is what Amy has been doing since day dot.
Look at the imagery from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). We are consistently pointed towards Nina’s double-dimentional nature and her Dr-Jeckyll-Mr-Hyde complex throughout. The film tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), an innocent dancer who descends into darkness in order to achieve her Prima-ballerina dream as the lead in Swan Lake. Anticipating the tale of light and dark, she must release a side of her that has been repressed her whole life by her mother. Succumbing to evolve into the black swan is tempted by Lily (Mila Kunis), a less innocent ballerina, who is often graphically shown as a reflection, or another side, of Nina herself.
Portman plays both the white and black swan, the former the initial trembling facade of a repressed girl, the latter a temptation that she sees projected everywhere she goes. It is not a metamorphosis that occurs – for the black swan is present from the beginning, smiling in the faces of others, caught in reflections, whispering when she is alone – but an awakening.
Aronofsky’s world is a world of contradictions, and, like Gone Girl, an irredeemably dark one. In order to succeed, and please everyone around her, Nina has to embrace her harder, more selfish side, physically killing off her old self in the end. What must women sacrifice for perfection? This splitting of the leading lady into two different psyches highlights her complexities as a woman, charts the journey of her sexuality intimately instead of from a critical distance, and alludes to the pressure of external expectations.
The double leading lady is everywhere in cinema’s history – the sister act (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, 1962), the one-evil-one-not twin (Dark Mirror, 1946), and those countless films that utilise mirror imagery (namely the famous ending to The Lady From Shanghai, 1947). It is no accident that duality and reflection is a repetitive theme in female-focused film. But it is only recently that mainstream cinema has taken on narratives that explicitly explore the construction of gender, centring the female perspective, without straightforward indications to sympathy, using this theme. May the unpicking of the female brain continue on our screens!