The femme fatale is the most infamous female archetype in film history. In "Gender In Film Noir", Andrew Spicer introduces us to the character. A staple of the classic noir period, she was the prize and price for sexual liberation. Always with her foot in the shadows, the character type was seen as a dark reflection of the male protagonist. Such a reflection was one that needed to be subdued by the man to maintain the status quo (and maintain it they did). The femme fatale never survived to see the credits of a classic noir film (90-91). Neo-noir, however, offers a world of possibilities for her. The evolution of the genre has allowed this paradigm to step out into the light of day; here she is allowed to be her own woman. The state of contemporary sexual relations offers new tools, but also challenges. The resurrected figure of the femme fatale will have to be stronger, more cunning, and more intelligent if she wants to survive (and she does). She has learned from her mistakes and she won’t make them again. The history of classic noir is available to her, so she can respond to and/or rectify the images of her past self. The neo femme fatale is both a product of the world’s turning and a fluid commentary on the classical noir film.
One of the first women to crawl out from the shadows was Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981). She plays it straight for most of the film, acting as the desperate temptress who needs help from her man, just as her counterparts did in the past; but she doesn’t need him. As Foster Hirsch says in Detours and Lost Highways, “Matty needs only her powerful will and her body heat” (183). The revelation of Matty’s plan only starts to rear its head towards the film’s conclusion before exploding onscreen as Matty’s (or really Mary Ann Simpson’s) high school picture. Since her late teens, Matty has aspired to “be rich and live on an exotic island”. This knowledge forces us to realize that all her interactions with Ned were designed to lead up to the moment, at the film’s close, when she is indeed rich on an exotic island.
The classic femme fatale would have had trouble with Ned Racine. Their potential for sexual liberation would be lost on him as he already uninhibited. Matty’s utilizes her aggressive sexual demeanor instead to subdue him. She appeals directly to his hormones. Such behavior was not an option in the more patriarchal era of classic noir, but in Body Heat Ned actually compliments her on her ability to “keep on coming”. Ned is not concerned with keeping her feminine power in check. In hindsight, it is plain that Matty specifically selected Ned. She knew his sleazy history and his corruptible nature and upon meeting him, she learned that he was a horn dog. Matty displays an intelligence and a foresight previously unseen in the femme fatale. She doesn’t select a strong, helpful partner, she chooses a male she can manipulate and deceive with direct sexuality without fear of repercussion.
She is taking advantage of the new rules of gender relations while also commenting on the tragic history of her archetype. She isn’t going to allow herself to fail. She is highly organized and always ten steps ahead of everyone. Even supposed missteps, such as the stolen glasses or the will tampering, were her deliberate calculations. Such dedication, ruthlessness and flawlessness of execution had never been achieved by the femme fatale. Though the film played out the story of both Ned and Matty (oftentimes dominated by Ned), we realize, at the end, that the story was truly Matty’s; the end of the story of her grand scheme. She isn’t some dark reflection of Ned, he was below her; she’s her own person and a master of femininity. The depiction of her sunbathing is the realization of the long, unfulfilled dream of the femme fatale. Matty’s accomplishment stems from her ability to avoid the pitfalls of the classical role and bring it into the contemporary world.
What Matty starts off, Bridget finishes in The Last Seduction (1994). She is the fully developed female threat. Where Matty was only able to expose herself at the conclusion of Body Heat, The Last Seduction is entirely Bridget’s show (Hirsch 184-185). She is the primary protagonist of the film, yet she is a monster throughout. So comfortable is she in her manipulations that she openly exposes them to the audience. Little cues and smirks indicate to us when she is putting on a front for her victims. Spicer wrote that the classic femme fatale’s “enigmatic qualities stimulate the central narrative drive…” (Gender in Film Noir, 91), but Bridget possesses no enigmatic qualities. Instead, she is the central narrative drive. In her, the femme fatale becomes the story, no longer subjugated to the role of a narrative device.
Though Bridget orchestrates several schemes before the film’s end, she doesn’t plan the events that begin the plot. Her theft of Clay was the spontaneous response to his slapping her. The complete femme fatale does not allow herself to be punished, so she punishes back ten-fold, stealing his money and leaving him at the mercy of bad men. Bridget punishes men for various indiscretions that might lead to her downfall. She openly emasculates her employees, Clay and Mike throughout the film. The private eye aims to bring her back to Clay, but she uses her sexual cunning to send him flying through a car window. In the end, when Clay thinks he has her beat, she simply sprays mace down his throat, proving to be more of a threat than the loan shark he was so concerned with. When Mike finally becomes aware of the bad situation he’s in, Bridget is able to act on the fly to get him where she wants him. Using her superior sexual consciousness against his insecurities, she actually manages to get him to rape her. Bridget as the femme fatale has evolved far beyond the intense planning and flawless execution of Matty. She is always on; she is such an unstoppable force that she doesn’t even need to plan ahead to get the best of the men around her. Her actions bring to mind some vengeful spirit of femme fatales past. In Postmodern Film Noir, Spicer points out that while riding away in the limousine, Bridget seems completely content with herself, unlike Matty at the close of Body Heat (165). This suggests that the conscience of the femme fatale has been expunged, creating a more capable character type.
Bridget completes the journey of the femme fatale in numerous ways, but that doesn’t stop the archetype’s continued evolution. The title character of Jackie Brown (1997) functions as the femme fatale, but one that preys upon motivations in men that aren’t sexual. There is certainly an sexy side to Jackie Brown, but her power stems from never having to use it. In place of sex she has savvy, which she uses to convince everyone that she can get them what they want.
Jackie is also an easier character to get behind than her predecessors because her actions aren’t selfish and cruel. The need to punish the male characters for the crimes of noir’s past isn’t there. She is put in a bad position where she stands to lose everything. Jackie didn’t choose her role, but she needs to take it on to survive. There is no malicious intent in her actions, she just understands that she’s smarter then everyone around her and uses it to her benefit. Her character only becomes fatal in the case of Robbie because he threatened to undo all her hard work and planning. He’s also quite a villain, so his death can’t really come as a shock considering the tenuous fate of the antagonist in film history.
In Jackie Brown, Melanie also tries to conjure up the spirit of the femme fatale to enlist the services of Louis, but fails. Her understanding of the role is very limited. She tries to use sex, but lacks any sort of finesse in doing so. Then she attempts to challenge Louis, calling him a “pussy”, but she is once again shot down (but not for the last time). Melanie doesn’t appreciate the reality of the situation; Louis doesn’t really need anything that she’s offering and he’s too smart or cautious to be drawn to her. Not everyone is so easily manipulated by sex or so eager to prove their manhood.
Her failing is Jackie’s triumph. Jackie is successful because she recognizes each characters’ individual motivations without resorting to the appeal of general ones. She knows precisely what each man wants and she knows how to convince them that she can get it. Her survival continues a trend set by Matty and the nouveau femme fatale. She shows that, in contemporary Hollywood, the strong female persona does not need to be repressed or punished; the independent woman is now worthy of praise (Spicer, Postmodern Film Noir, 165).
In neo-noir, the female threat has finally become viable. Where once there was the certainty that she would never get away with her treachery, there is now the great possibility of her success. Contemporary culture does not demand that we punish the strong woman, as she is no longer a transgressive figure. The new femme fatale has taken advantage of fresh gender/sexual politics and used it to her benefit. The evolution of the genre has allowed her to become a fully actualized character. No longer is she the reflection of something else, she is her own person and, in many cases, the subject of narrative focus. She is cognizant of the collective history of her archetype and she uses that to avoid past mistakes. The neo femme fatale functions with the classic femme fatale in mind, just as neo-noir functions with classic noir in mind.