Kick-Ass Women Column: Femme Fatale

Every week Gwyneth Sleutel writes on kick-ass women in genre film, this final week: the femme fatale.

Kick-Ass Women Column: Femme Fatale

“She finds an innocuous corner in which to spin her web. The linger the web takes, the more fabulous it construction. She has no need to chase. She sits quietly, her patience a consummate force; she waits for her prey to come to her on their own, and then she ensnares them, injects them with venom, rendering them unable to escape. Spiders – so needed and yet so misunderstood” – Donna Lynn Hope

The femme fatale is comparable to a spider in its web. Both weave a web of barely visible wires, where they wait for their prey. Once in the web, caught by the spider or the femme fatale, their fate is decided and the end will be fatal. The femme fatale is one of the classic archetypes of the film noir of the 40s. In this genre, the femme fatale got its canonized status and her character was formed through movies such as Vidor’s Gilda (1946) or Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). The upcoming of the femme fatale is seen as a reaction to the groups of women who left their homes and entered the working life. They left their homely environment and ventured themselves into jobs, previously belonging to men who were now fighting the war. This development meant an advancement of emancipation, and after the war many women refused to recommit themselves to their traditional roles of housewives or mothers. The femme fatale embodies the post-war male fear of these new female role. Film noir shows her as a woman, covered in a shroud of mystery. She is unpredictable, but is loved and wanted for her sexual attraction. For this reason, she is considered dangerous, but in fact, her nature is ambiguous. Her character is after all partially based on a traditional image of women, where typical female values, such as beauty and sexuality, play important roles.

The character of the femme fatale turned out to be malleable, and the new film noir of the 60s melted the femme fatale of the 40s with the independent woman, refusing to be the second gender. More than ever, she uses her beauty to seduce. She is self-conscious and her sexuality is a means to an end: to gain more power. This idea fits with post-feminist thinking.

Currently, the femme fatale is no longer tied to the genre of film noir, as she also appears in horror and science fiction. Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), shows a beautiful protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) as a true femme fatale who uses her sexual attractive forces to seduce men and lure them to her home, where she mysteriously disappears. Peculiar about this film is that we see a femme fatale in the process of becoming, meaning we learn what is necessary for becoming a femme fatale. This is directly seen in the opening scene, where the female protagonist undoes a dead female body of its clothes to put these on herself. In a later scene in the shopping mall, the female protagonist sees how women apply make-up and fix their hair. She learns what traditional femininity means and she takes on a new identity confirming to these values. Before the woman starts her hunt for potential victims and celebrates her power as a femme fatale, she first must confirm to traditional femininity. In the construction (and eventual decommissioning) of the femme fatale, we see a gender-political context as the movie expresses its criticism concerning internalized worldviews.

Even though Under the Skin follows a voyeuristic female gaze and emphasizes female subjectivity and agency, this strength also encompasses a weakness. Her view tells us what it means to be a woman, through her we see how the female protagonist is confronted with fetishizing objectification, sexual violence and even rape.

Just like we saw in my analysis of The VVitch, in Under The Skin we can also notice a visual comparison between woman and nature. The parallel between woman and nature has been recognized by many feminist writers. The woman supposedly embodies the pure and fair of nature, though she also encompasses its darker side, where she is able to destruct and destroy. For this reason, the female nature needs to be cultivated and contained by men. In Under the Skin this male force appears as a male lumberjack.

Not only does he restrain and cultivate nature, he also wishes to constrain the femme fatale. His attempt to rape the female protagonist shows his desire to own the female body. He wants to control and dominate it. However, his attempt fails as her skin starts tearing. Her skin comes off and, along with it, her femininity. A gender neutral, alien-like creature appears. The alien takes the face of her former body in its hands and looks in its eyes. This significant moment is poignant, realizing that the female identity is still formed by her outer appearance and performance. She is still seen as an object, an empty shell. In the reciprocal look of the alien and the face of the woman, there is also a flash of recognition that encompasses the essence of the film. Exactly as an alien is considered strange and foreign, a woman is still seen as exactly that. She is still the Other.

Under the Skin lets us feel what it is like to be the Other and see the world from an alienating perspective. This film is critical of gender difference through its depiction of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is not, like the classical archetype, formed on the basis of traditional female values, but rather is taught these values, learning them along the way. She discovers what it means to be a woman. The femme fatale confronts us with the position of women and strives for a world where there is equal space for both genders. This makes her an empowered woman in a kick-ass women story.

About the author:
After completing her bachelor's degree cum laude, Gwyneth Sleutel (1994) was selected for the professional track in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam. During her studies Gwyneth did extensive research into the portrayal of women in cinema and became inspired by the combination of film and feminism, as movies offer us a unique insight into how our society functions and deals with issues regarding gender. During her master thesis she took a closer look at the development of feminist film theory in order to analyse the portrayal of the 'mother' in Dutch movies.

Her passion for cinema also shows in her work as a freelance filmmaker and her contributions to critical online media platforms. However, her heart lies with the script development of fictional film. After a few internships with a focus on dramaturgy and the practical development of movies, at the VPRO among others, Gwyneth is now working as a freelance dramaturg and script editor. In addition to this she is editor-in-chief for the faculty magazine Babel. Gwyneth will publish a weekly article for Imagine Film Festival, drawing inspiration from her talents as an analyst and critical thinking skills concerning the portrayal of women in cinema. Championing the idea that there can never be enough kick-ass women in film.