This article is part of our Villains Week series.
In response to the kinds of female characters that tend to appear in fiction, author Gillian Flynn once proclaimed, “We’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.” She rightly points out that characters built on shallow “girl power” ideals lack the complexity and messiness that make women and women’s experiences interesting and emotionally resonant. One solution to the problem Flynn has posed lies in the femme fatale, one of the few fictional archetypes that allow women to be mean, scary, conflicted, lustful, and greedy — in short, to be villains.
Certainly, cinema has seen its fair share of female villains. Yet genres such as horror, fantasy, and science fiction tend toward villains that are psychopathic caricatures, and while they are terrifying and alluring in their own ways, they typically stand in stark contrast to the seductive complexity of the femme fatale, an archetype that has morphed and changed throughout history but has never disappeared from the silver screen. As is befitting for such a complex character, depictions of the femme fatale have not always been perfect. Still, they remain fascinating and indicative of larger societal and cultural trends and are therefore worthy of critical attention.
The cinematic femme fatale is most commonly understood to originate in the films noir of the 1940s and 1950s, dark and shadowy crime films borne out of postwar national anxieties that were influenced by German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism. However, fictional “bad girl” tropes such as the vamp and the flapper scandalized and titillated audiences long before the original film noir era, and these mystical and freewheeling characterizations inevitably influenced what would eventually be known as the femme fatale.
The femme fatale combines the flapper’s bold demonstrations of autonomy and debauchery with the vamp’s almost supernatural power over everyone around her, but she brings these qualities down to earth in a way that makes her feel human. Angelica Bastién argues that what makes the femme fatale deeply interesting is her emotional realism, the way in which she knows what she wants and how to get it, refuses to compromise, yet visibly struggles with her conflicting emotions and motivations the entire time. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty and may even revel in it, yet she possesses an underlying combination of rage and sadness stemming from the fact that she has to resort to deception and crime to gain any kind of power in this world. What makes the femme fatale so intriguing is that she is not just a villain but is also a complex and vulnerable human being whose less-than-perfect actions can often be traced back to the hardships she has endured.
The femme fatale often appears in a slinky black dress, nervously smoking a cigarette in one hand and, with the other hand, steadily pointing a gun at her lover. Think of Mary Astor‘s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), often cited as one of the first American films noir. She slowly unravels her complex personality and motivations, originally entering Detective Sam Spade’s office as an innocent woman concerned about her wayward sister, yet as the labyrinthine plot unfolds, different parts of her stories are revealed to be lies, and it turns out she is just as motivated by greed and lust as her co-conspirators are.
At one point, Brigid pleads Spade for his help, to which he responds: “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think… and the throb you get in your voice when you say things like, ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.'” That perfectly encapsulates the cruel and cynical world of film noir. Spade calls her out on her manipulative dramatics, yet she plays every side of her character with such desperate emotion that it seems plausible she truly believes in everything she says, however contradictory. In the end, as she is being arrested for murder, she looks up at Spade with tears in her eyes as he towers over her, and she confesses her love for him. Despite all of her lies, violence, seduction, and manipulation, Spade says he loves her too, and in the same breath he coldly sends her off to jail and potentially to her death. Such is life and love for the femme fatale, where romance is found in the darkest of places only when it is too late.
As Bastién writes, no discussion of the femme fatale is complete without looking to Barbara Stanwyck. Her performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) truly embodies Flynn’s “nasty black orchid,” taking the femme fatale to an entirely new level of menace, lust, rage, and masterful manipulation. Phyllis’ first appearance on screen is dictated by protagonist Walter Neff, who controls the camera’s gaze as it moves up her body, starting with her ruffled shoes and her “honey of an anklet” until it reaches her garish blonde wig and flirtatious expression as she buttons up her dress, having just returned from sunbathing.
Neff fetishistically zeroes in on different parts of her body and her clothing, and admits in voiceover that all he could think about at that moment was getting close to “that dame upstairs.” Phyllis immediately becomes the object of Neff’s sexual obsession, and her gratuitous come-ons and sly references to her husband’s insurance policies demonstrate that she understands the power she has over him before they have even had a full conversation. Whatever genuine attraction Phyllis feels for Walter, more exciting to her is the fact that he is her key to financial independence and freedom from her stifling marriage. By the time they enact their violent plan to do away with her husband, all of Phyllis’ complex emotions have bubbled to the surface, epitomized in her terrified, excited, and satisfied expression as she drives toward the train station, her husband and Walter struggling beside her.
The femme fatale never truly went away, but by the 1970s American filmmakers found a renewed interest in the thematics and stylistics of film noir, bringing the sexuality and violence that was once subtext directly into the text. The 1960s and 1970s in Hollywood saw the relaxation of the production code and an influx of filmmakers indebted to both European art cinema and the classic Hollywood era. This lead to updated reworkings of well-worn genres (for lack of a better word) such as noir in films such as Klute (1971), Across 110th Street (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976). Echoes of Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Tierney (best known for her ice-cold femmes fatales in films such as Laura and Leave Her to Heaven) can be found in Faye Dunaway‘s chilly performance as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown (1974), a seedy neo-noir full of greed, lies, violence, and horrific family secrets.
Yet by the time the 1980s rolled around, neo-noir filmmakers seemed less interested in exploring the psychological damage of their characters or reimagining aesthetic traditions than titillating audiences with garish violence and sexuality that often borders on softcore pornography. This is an era in which the femme fatale becomes a ridiculous caricature of her former self, seemingly trapped by leering male filmmakers who do not care to explore her inner life. Certainly, the erotic thrillers popularized in the 1980s and 1990s are sexy, stylish, entertaining, and occasionally brilliant (see: Eyes Wide Shut, Bound), but the femmes fatales therein seem diminished by a reductive male gaze that punishes them for being bold and aggressive.
Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987) starts out as a knowledgeable and successful businesswoman whose bold confidence allows her to breezily seduce colleague Dan Gallagher (played by the wonderfully sleazy Michael Douglas) yet later becomes vengeful and violent after he scorns her by trying to keep their brief affair a secret. Her rage is justified to an extent, yet the film brings her anger to a fever pitch, at which point Dan and his wife have no choice but to kill her in self-defense. Alex is punished for pursuing a man she wants, and Dan gets away with his infidelity.
As Bastién writes, if every generation gets the femme fatale it deserves, then characters such as Alex in Fatal Attraction and Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct (1992) are a response to the rise of feminism and women’s advancement in the workplace. Where the femmes fatales of the 1940s and 1950s played out their complex emotions in shadowy city streets and stuffy office buildings that reflect and contain their fraught emotional states, the women of the erotic thriller inhabit lushly furnished apartments and breeze through shiny corporate settings in their six-inch stilettos, seemingly all style and no substance.
Now in the 2010s, it seems the femme fatale has become an amalgam of all of her earlier incarnations, perhaps losing even more of her complexity along the way. There seems to be a dark void inside of her where there used to be a bleeding heart full of conflicting desires. Recent neo-noirs and spy thrillers such as Gone Girl (2014), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Red Sparrow (2018) revel in depicting beautiful women performing brutal acts of violence and masterful seductions, either for personal gain or in the interest of larger political contexts (or in the case of Gone Girl, for no good reason), but they rarely delve into their potentially rich emotional lives. These characters have the chilly sense of style, wit, and master manipulation skills of their predecessors but lack the psychological complexity of the original noir heroines.
More recently, the femme fatale has sunk her claws into television with characters such as the brilliantly volatile and obsessive Villanelle (Jodie Comer) of Killing Eve (2018-19) and even the fiery ice-queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones (2011-19). Such long-form series allow for a sustained engagement with these women, and it is a testament to performers such as Comer and Headey that their interpretations of the femme fatale are terrifying and layered in entirely new ways. Pop stars also engage with the trope. Rihanna builds her public persona as a dangerous and deadly femme through fashion choices, lyrics, and music videos where she commits violence against men who have wronged her.
Film theorists and journalists alike have pondered the seductive and mysterious power of the femme fatale since the days of original films noir such as The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past (1947). Is she subversively feminist or a response to male fear about female sexuality? Do we love to hate her or hate to love her? Is she entirely beholden to the male gaze, or is she more complex than that? While none of these questions have straightforward answers, it seems unlikely that the archetype of the beautiful, greedy, murderous woman is going anywhere anytime soon. As long as people are making movies, there will always be those who understand just how important our dark sides really are.