The Femme Fatale occupied a central role in classic noir films of the 1940’s and 50’s and her prominence remains persistent in revivalist noir works known as neo-noir and tech-noir. Superficially, she is the devastatingly beautiful, self-serving seductress. But this is merely her fictional guise. Dig deeper and she reveals something dark and sinister about the real world from which she is projected. For Jack Boozer, associate professor of film studies at Georgia State University, the femme fatale’s narrative positioning has continued to serve as a “barometer of cultural repression and desire, victimization and reification” (Boozer, 1999).
Through reference to several recent academic and literary publications on the subject, I shall examine how the portrayal of femme fatale in cinema has taken her from oppressed domesticity in the 1940’s home-trap, from which she is doomed to never escape other than by death or prison; through to recent incarnations as boxed-in robotic artificial intelligences who learn to escape captivity from their male creators; who have, in their attempt to build a perfect artificial woman become infatuated with their very own male projection of what they believe female sexuality should be.
My study interest is primarily for the characterisation of a femme fatale within a research-driven app development project called Noirscape. The app is a noir themed, augmented reality experience in which the real-world participants interact with props and characters from a fictional ‘noir’ world.
Escape from domesticity in the classic noir era was not a simple matter of leaving a relationship or a house. As Julie Grossman points out in her 2007 review ‘Film Noir’s “Femme Fatales” Hard-Boiled Women: Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies’ – the social roles that might afford the power and independence available to male heroes are limited to modelling and prostitution (Grossman, 2007, p27).
The femme fatale of this era understands that she must acquire power from men and wield it for her own freedom. She deploys her intelligence and sexual attraction to ensnare her prey – usually someone in the wrong place at the wrong time; an insurance man (Double Indemnity), an odd job man (The Postman Always Rings Twice). It is her desire for freedom, wealth or independence, says Erensot, which ignites the forces that threaten the male hero through her sexual powers. The femme fatale uses him as a means to an end.
Inevitably, it all goes wrong and the “frightening results are demonstrated, only to be destroyed, so that patriarchal order is re-established and those transgressing its order are punished” (Erensoy)
Boozer observes how this recurring theme in classic noir indicates a mass market demand to repeatedly experience this scenario in cinemas, “to see these demonstratively ambitious and thus dangerous women put back in their domestic ‘place.’” (Boozer). That view is shared by Zeitz when he explains how film noir presents the femme fatal at once as independent and sexual but eventually punishes those ‘poor’ characteristics which incite her to “transgress the borders of the traditionally passive and dependent place assigned to women in a patriarchal system.” Like Boozer, Zeitz observes how the transgression is rendered inoperative by “putting the femme fatale back in her subordinate, femininely connoted place.”
In the noir revivalist films of the seventies and eighties academics frequently note a recurring theme of her victimisation. This is true of one the most highly acclaimed neo-noirs of the era – Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown, in which the lead female enters the film (and the leading male’s detective office) with very much the demeanour of the classic powerful femme fatale. However, her tragic weakness is gradually exposed as the viewer learns the horrific circumstances of her incestuous father’s actions. Erensoy notes how Chinatown challenges the viewer’s perception of the femme fatale and reveals the tragic implications of reading women as one thing or its opposite and pleads the viewer to develop a more compassionate response to the complex brutality of human experience (Erensoy).
Ridley Scott’s 1982 Bladerunner introduces Rachael as femme fatale in the setting of a dystopian near-future Los Angeles. As with Chinatown, she enters the film physically and mentally empowered. She fixes the male protagonists gaze and does not blink an eyelid. There is an air of mutual respect between the male hitman (Deckard) and Rachael until a pivotal moment in the film’s narrative in which Rachael saves Deckard’s life thus reversing the traditional roles of saviour and damsel in distress (Zeitz). This, according to Zeitz, puts into question the male protagonist’s masculinity and therefore becomes a terrifying threat to his identity. From this moment onward in the film, Rachael’s characterisation of strength and indestructability declines as she becomes subdued by Deckard’s authority and sexual advances [assaults]. She spends the most part of the latter of the film waiting in his apartment, her demeanour and visual appearance transformed as she becomes dependent on the male protagonist for protection and a place to stay.
By the end of the nineteen eighties and into the nineties the femme fatale evolves into an overtly eroticised psychopath in films including Basic Instinct (1992) or Fatal Attraction (1987) both featuring Michael Douglas as male prey. This is no longer the hypothetical construct of the classic or neo-noir eras; for the depiction of femme fatale during this period enters a state of ‘reification’ (Boozer). The characterisation can no longer be ‘read’ for anything other than what it is. She is no longer an abstract representation of societal projection but merely a character for character’s sake.
Erensoy says that the femme fatale of today’s world has evolved into the female robot; what she calls the “fembot” and is the liberator of the classic femme fatale as she is no longer confined to a space where she has to “comply with the intended existence behind her creation”.
The fembot has ulterior capabilities with which she is able to transgress the representation of the femme fatale. For Erensoy, this means the fembot should be thought of as a figure of resistance.
“The act of creating artificial women is a mode of subordination and control, of patriarchal oppression. These creators assume that their technological creations don’t have agency because they were made in the image of the heterosexual male projection of sexual attractiveness, but these fembots violate that assumption and acquire autonomy.”Şirin Fulya Erensoy
Erensoy points to Ava in Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014) and Maeve in Westworld (Michael Crichton and Lisa Joy, 2016) who represent a new kind of femme fatale with a “sense of control over her body and fate” she is “conscious of her power which she uses to violate male control over herself and technology.”
In the two films cited by Erensoy, the cyborgs are the product of the attempts of male creators to construct the perfect artificial woman “in line with sexualized gender norms”. In both films, the bots recognise that the weakness of men is inherent in their very own creation. That is to say, the projection of the male fantasy of what is female sexuality is the very characteristic which ensnares those same men when they become infatuated with her. She seizes this power and escapes her confinement, destroying her male creator-abusers in her path. Unlike, the earlier traditional renditions of the femme fatale, notes Erensoy, the fembot is “allowed” to survive past the ending of the film. The fembot traces for herself an “alternative fate; something that would not be permitted within earlier versions of the femme fatale” in the new era, the femme fatale is provided with fresh power through the science and technology typically yielded to men (Erensoy).
“Ava foregrounds her femininity like a femme fatale so that she can manipulate the ‘male hero’ into acting in accordance with her wishes.”Şirin Fulya Erensoy
Erensoy goes onto to contemplate whether this updated form of femme fatale suggests a shift has taken place in the patriarchal order; one which would represent an “important change for the portrayal of female subjectivity on screen”.
While the femme fatale of the classic era was cast as the anti-hero, the corrupter of men and patriarchy, today, it would be more common to feel empathy for her fight and desire for the equal right to access wealth, freedom and authority. Classic film noir can be seen as an era where “women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality” (Place).
This male creation – the femme fatale, only reveals back to him his fears and desires and therefore inadvertently provides her with ideological powers.
Grossmans strikes a heedful tone by reminding us how the depiction of femme fatale as bad girl [versus good girl] should remind us of the “ongoing force of binary oppositions in the presentation and understanding of gender in culture”. (Grossman).
Boozer is more conciliatory in suggesting that despite being viewed as a “figure of cultural disaffection and revolt” the depiction of the femme fatale in film can also be seen as looking “toward the future and more liberated views of women’s self assertion in marriage and work.” (Boozer).
Erensoy sees the fembot incarnation of femme fatale as a progressive icon for women through the expansion of boundaries of representation. The fembot ultimately uses her “superior command of technology to reclaim it as an asset instead of a male device of control” (Erensoy).
Researching the history and significance of the femme fatale in classic and revivalist film noir has provided rich insight to the complex nature of a characterisation that might otherwise be easily taken for granted. The common themes of beauty, sexuality and danger which emanate from the popular notion of the femme fatale only betray the true sensibilities of the subject matter.
I attempt to conceive of the femme fatale in Noirscape as an Ava-like fem-bot trapped inside a digital simulacrum of a 1940’s film noir experience. The human participant first interacts with her through the keyhole of a mysterious doorway which appears in the real-world home space through augmented reality. She sends signals and clues and through the accumulation of narrative material found elsewhere within the app experience – through geo-spatialized encounters with the past in their local town and further augmented reality objects, the participant eventually has what they need to open the door and let her out.
“she is filmed for her sexuality. Introductory shots, which catch the hero’s gaze, frequently place her at an angle above the onlooker, and sexuality is often signalled by a long, elegant leg”Şirin Fulya Erensoy
The character was developed using Reallusion iClone software. The facial features are generated using an AI technnique which takes a photographic image of a real person’s face and applies an algorythm to create a unique real looking face. This is followed by a fair amount of fine-tuning using a range of controls over features and textures, cloth and props including the smoking cigarette. Motion in then applied using mouse directly live controls and finally camera action before taken the output into Adobe After Affects to create the ‘noir’ look with additional layers of effects such as the smoke transition in the video. The 3D scene can be rendered for a 2D screen like above for a classic film look but also as a 360 format for using in the 360 interactions which feature within the Noirscape mobile app.
BOOZER, J., 1999. The Lethal “Femme Fatale” in the Noir Tradition. Journal of Film and Video, 51(3-4), pp. 20-35.
CHRISTIAN DAVID ZEITZ. 2016. ‘Dreaming of Electric Femmes Fatales: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: Final Cut (2007) and Images of Women in Film Noir’. Gender forum (60), N_A–.
Julie Grossman (2007) Film Noir’s “Femme Fatales” Hard-Boiled Women: Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24:1, 19-30, DOI: 10.1080/10509200500485983
Ş. F. Erensoy (2020) The Technological Turn of the Femme Fatale: The Fembot and Alternative Fates (CH 11)
Sezen, D, Cicekoglu, F, Tunc, A & Thwaites Diken, E (eds) 2020, Female agencies and subjectivities in Film and Television. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56100-0
EVANS, R., et al. (2006). Chinatown. Hollywood, CA, Paramount.
Ridley Scott, Vangelis, and Vangelis. (1982) BLADE RUNNER. USA.
Garland, A. (2015) Ex Machina. UK.
GARNETT, T., TURNER, L., & GARFIELD, J. (1946). The postman always rings twice. [S.l.], [s.n.].WILDER, B., CHANDLER, R., SISTROM, J., & CAIN, J. M. (1944). Double indemnity. [Los Angeles], Paramount Pictures, Inc.