Artwork by Sophie Squire
A femme fatale is defined as an attractive and seductive woman who will ultimately bring disaster to a man who becomes involved with her. They are cunning and manipulative, wielding their feminine wiles in order to get what they want. These women have extreme ulterior motives to their seductions. They end up outwitting the man they’re with to get away with a nefarious scheme. The femme fatale character trope can certainly be related to a personification of a misogynistic fear of women. Some can see a clichéd and sexist view since the women use their sexuality only. But on the flip side, these characters show a strong independence and control in their own destiny and sexuality, though they use it for malevolent ways.
These female characters were especially popular during the film-noir era of the 1940’s and 1950s’, portrayed by the great actresses of that time such as Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Barbra Stanwyck. In the 1980’s and particularly the 1990’s, the neo-noir genre was very popular. Films were infusing film-noir elements into their stories and style, but updating them to suit the modern day. Though the trope can lead to divided views, it can certainly be said that the femme fatale makes for some infamous female roles in film. Here is a look at a few modern femme fatales from the 80’s, 90’s, and today.
Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981)
Body Heat is a neo-noir directly inspired by the femme fatales in 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1947’s Out of the Past. Kathleen Turner made her film début as Matty, a husky-voiced seductress. The film launched her career and turned her into a sex symbol. The New York Times described her début as “jaw-dropping. She built a career on adventurousness and frank sexuality born of robust physicality.” Matty is the wife of a successful businessman who begins having an affair with the easily manipulated William Hurt. Matty convinces him to murder her husband in order to get his money, since they signed a pre-nup and she would get nothing by divorcing him. THE TWIST? Ned kills the husband and ends up in jail, then discovers that Matty killed a high school friend to steal her identity. Her real name was Mary Ann Simpson. Her high school nickname was “The Vamp” and ambition was to be rich and live in an exotic land. Cut to Matty a.k.a Mary Ann sipping drinks on a tropical island with a young boy toy next to her.
Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992)
Basic Instinct is another neo-noir, famously known for being steamy erotic thriller. Pop culture remembers Basic Instinct mostly for the famous vagina-flashing scene, when Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs. While Body Heat evokes many of the film-noir elements of the past, Basic Instinct completely transgresses the usual film-noir narrative. Sharon Stone’s character takes ‘woman owning her sexuality’ to a whole other level. A rock star is stabbed to death with an ice pick, and homicide detective Nick Curran (played by Michael Douglas) is assigned to the case. The only suspect is the rock star’s girlfriend, Catherine. Catherine is a bisexual crime novelist who just so happens to have written a book with the exact same murder scene. Catherine is planning to write her own femme fatale story, where a Nick-like character falls for the wrong woman and gets murdered. After a lot of cat-and-mouse chasing, Nick and Catherine start sleeping together. Then murders in Catherine’s book start occurring in real life. THE TWIST? Nick learns that Catherine had an affair with his psychiatrist Beth in college. Both Catherine and Beth accuse each other of being obsessed the other. With a shrine of Catherine books and photos as evidence in Beth’s apartment, the police conclude that she murdered the rock star due to her obsession. The final scene is Catherine and Nick having sex, as Catherine goes to reach for something under the bed but then decides not to. We see that it was an ice pick. Catherine committed the murders all along, maybe Nick is next? Or not?
Madchen Amick as Lena Mathers in Dream Lover (1993)
Dream Lover is not as well-known as the others in this list. It’s not a classic by any means, (there are these really cheesy circus dream sequences…) but it’s worth mentioning if only for its slight similarity to Gone Girl and the fact that it definitely keeps you guessing. The movie opens with Ray (played by James Spader) after his recent divorce. He meets a beautiful woman named Lena Mathers at an art gallery showing. They quickly begin sleeping together, then get married and have children. At first everything seems perfect, despite being so rushed. Then Ray starts catching Lena in little lies about her past, and soon begins thinking that she is having an affair. After Ray hits Lena in a flash of anger, she has him committed to a mental hospital. THE TWIST? Lena has been planning this for years in order to get his money. But Dream Lover is the one exception in this list for the femme fatale does not get away with it. Lena visits Ray at the hospital one day. Away from the attendants supervising him, Ray tells Lena that having him declared insane was a mistake, because now he won’t be legally accountable for killing her. Which he does right then and there.
Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014)
While femme fatale movies certainly endured after the 90’s, they were not as popular. Gone Girl brought back the genre in a completely new way, transcending the genre by being a biting criticism on misogyny and a feminist manifesto. It also gives us one of the most sociopathic and greatest femme fatale characters of all time. She uses her sexuality and everything that society placates on women into her own hands and spins it on its head. Based on the novel, Gone Girl tells the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple from New York who moves to Mississippi. Through diary entries, we learn that Amy is unhappy in her marriage and with the new move. Then one day she goes missing. Soon her husband Nick is revealed to be having an affair. More and more in the media and the audience’s eyes Nick seems incredibly guilty. THE TWIST? Gone Girl has two twists. First, we discover that the diary is completely fake, set up for the police, and Amy is alive. Angry about the affair, she planned to get revenge on Nick by putting him in jail for her disappearance and eventual “murder’. We learn she has been meticulously setting up the diary and clues over the years for all this to happen. Amy initially planned to drown herself but it all changes when she sees Nick being treated better in the press. Amy meets up with her ex-boyfriend Desi, whom she murders and pins her fictional kidnapping, rape, and torture on. Amy returns home with Nick and becomes America’s sweetheart. She artificially inseminates herself with Nick’s child (from sperm of his she had saved) and they live unhappily ever after.
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.