From Femmes Fatales to Modern Antiheroines
Viewers have always been keen to see beautiful vixens putting themselves first and preying on the unfortunate men who fall under their spell, as much as they might have feared the potential power of these women. But while these antiheroines, who became known as femme fatales in the films noirs of the 1940s and ’50s, may not be a new presence on the screen, the renewed popularity of the neo-noir genre in recent decades led to a number of new variations on the classic femme fatale model, sometimes opening up new possibilities for female characters, while reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes at others. Many of the antiheroines currently appearing on the screen today owe a debt to these characters in one way or another. In this essay, I will discuss three neo-noir films (Basic Instinct, Mulholland Dr., and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For) that portray their femme fatale characters indistinctly different ways, while still maintaining a basic connection to the classic film noir archetypes and contributing to the diversity of current screen representations of women at the same time.
Basic Instinct captured the cultural zeitgeist at the time of its release, featuring a dangerous, intelligent and powerful femme fatale and a number of titillating sexual set pieces. But at the core, it is little more than an impeccably engineered piece of erotic audience bait. Michael Douglas plays a grade A sap, a detective haunted by an accidental shooting which killed two tourists, who falls in love with a perilously smart, rich, and powerful bisexual writer. Although she may have killed her parents and untold numbers of previous male bedroom partners in murders echoed verbatim in her novels, with Douglas as her newest subject, he nevertheless convinces himself that he has the power to tame her and conspires to settle down with her and “raise rugrats”. What could go wrong?
The film shamelessly plays on viewers’ fears of lesbians, psychologists, and sexually-dominant women — especially the triple threats out there who happen to be all three! Sharon Stone is an absolute knockout as one of these triple threats, although the much-discussed leg-crossing scene feels exploitative and uncomfortable (like much of the movie, actually).
Basic Instinct paved the way for a torrent of similar neo-noirs, such as Atomic Blonde, in which one of the antiheroine’s foremost characteristics is her ability to outsmart the men who get in her way at every turn.
Mulholland Dr. is a fascinating maze of surrealism and Hollywood intrigue. Laura Elena Harring’s character, in particular, presents an interesting spin on the femme fatale formula within the context of the film’s dreamlike narrative. Rita / Camilla is the attractive woman who is almost otherworldly in her beauty, initially seeming attainable to our lovestruck protagonist, but eventually being revealed as a duplicitous vixen who wears down the protagonist’s morality and inspires them to do terrible things.
One way that Mulholland Dr. differs from the traditional noir formula is in its presentation of the relationship between the protagonist (Naomi Watts as Betty Elms / Diane Selwyn) and the femme fatale as a lesbian relationship. Another major difference is the line it draws between the two stages in the characters’ relationship, with the shift hinging not on something that the femme fatale does, but rather on a shift in consciousness. Whether this shift is a matter of Diane waking up from a dream or waking up more figuratively to the real nature of her relationship with Camilla is the subject of endless debate among fans of the film, but either way, It is a shift in consciousness.
The film changed the rules for neo-noir by presenting a relationship between two women which eventually turns into a deadly power struggle — without questioning the basic morality of the characters’ lesbian relationship at any point. In this way Mulholland Dr. is quite unique, conforming to the characteristics of classic film noir in some ways while also questioning its moral judgments and black-and-white approach to narrative and character development common in others. By making both of the two main characters women, it also deemphasized film noir’s focus on gender conflict, creating new possibilities for cinematic representations of female characters in the process.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City films (based on Miller’s graphic novels) present a different quandary than either Basic Instinct or Mulholland Dr. With these films, it is not so much a case of whether or not they can be said to have elements similar with classic film noir, but rather a question how much of their grotesque imitation of noir elements are actually found in films noirs in some form and how much is simply parody, or even pure invention.
These films accentuate the hyper-masculine trademarks of noir — the burnt-out, world-weary detective, the amoral but essentially good-hearted lug, the semi-reformed hitman, etc. All of the characters speak in comically grim monologues and walk around in CGI imitations of chiaroscuro lighting. It all makes for a very strange and not entirely effective pastiche. What throws these films off balance is their relative lack of strong femme fatale characters to balance out the hard-boiled men. Most of the female characters are either strippers or ass-kicking prostitutes who seem to owe more to the films of Quentin Tarantino than to classic film noir. There is rarely any tension or struggle for power between them and the male characters — a crucial component of most films noirs — which means that the feminine side of these films feels secondary to the dominance of the ultra-tough male characters.
The exception to this is the character of Ava Lord (Eva Green) in the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Mrs. Lord is a power-hungry psychopath whose evil reaches far deeper than Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell. In fact, she is hardly characterized as human. Instead, she’s referred to as a demon, a goddess, and countless other names in between — all names chosen to invoke her supposedly superhuman power over men. Her image in both the graphic novel and the film is therefore one of voluptuous and eternal beauty, albeit a cold and impenetrable brand of beauty, like a sculpture of the ideal woman. Unfortunately for Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), the man who finds himself bruised, battered and ruined while under her spell, she is much more deadly than a sculpture. She uses other men, like her rich husband, to provoke or threaten Dwight, while using her seductive charms to convince the idiotic police that Dwight has murdered her husband in order to gain access to her husband.
This scenario is similar enough to the role of the femme fatale in classic film noir to merit the franchise’s inclusion on this list. And indeed, it is during this segment of A Dame to Kill For that the film feels most effective. But the fact that Ava hardly seems human robs the premise of its potential suspense and tension. Her true nature is never really in question, and her power over men is presented as inevitable, rather than something attempted and earned.
Because of this, the portrayal of women in the Sin City films could be seen as a step back rather than a step forward. However, as a comic-book genre pastiche, they could be said to clarify the basic tenets of the film noir style by amplifying them to a more extreme level. So while films like Atomic Blonde also use erotic elements and comic-book style to support their portrayals of femme fatale characters, they do so with an increased awareness of the archetype’s past, as well as an increased focus on the character’s superior intelligence and stamina — perhaps thanks in part to otherwise distasteful neo-noir films like Basic Instinct. The progression of this trend can also be seen in the recent Best Picture nominee Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which emphasizes the intelligence and drive of its antiheroine (played by Frances McDormand), while also refusing to sentimentalize or eroticize her.
While a bit fewer in number, films like Mulholland Dr. have gone even farther to expand the possibilities for antiheroine characters in the movies, by blurring the line between heroine and antiheroine in their ambiguous juxtaposition of reality and dreams (Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is another good example of this style). But even the more problematic examples of neo-noir have played a role in expanding the possibilities of female antiheroes in recent films, suggesting that the sexist connotation which has always stuck to film noir might not be entirely irreversible. Some might choose to see antiheroines as negative representations of women, but the increased diversity within the category can also be seen as another step in the right direction towards seeing more varied representations of women in the movies.
Corinne Murphy writes regularly about movie trends and obscure stats for movie recommendation site – Taste.io