The Femme Fatale: A Woman Which Man Fears


My theories and interests in film revolve around two things: my goal of increasing people’s interest in cinema and the idea that cinema is both representation and expression.

Like André Bazin, I believe “the aesthetic qualities of the photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare … reality,” and that this power is enhanced by cinema’s ability to reproduce movement.

However, I also believe that cinema expresses reality through mythmaking, “narratives whose fictional as well as nonfictional inventiveness … purvey a significant level of insight about the world and our concrete involvement in it,” as Irving Singer writes.

Surely, cinema is a product of a patriarchal, male-dominated society that prizes possession and desires power. However, I believe there exist possibilities to look beyond the surface and notice disturbances that stand in opposition to the dominating ideology, “moments of truth” that often require one to look beyond the story or the film itself as a story.

These disturbances, whether intentional or unintentional, interest me also because they prove that cinema is fundamentally ambivalent, that any reading of any film is possible, and that any film can be used to illustrate any theory – from the mundane to the most bizarre.

This ambivalence is perfectly represented by the stereotype of the femme fatale, identified by Janey Place as one of the two representation of woman in the film noir, in opposition to the “virgin,” from whom she differs because of her access to her sexuality.

Though the femme fatale, as the villain, tends to be destroyed by man’s “need to control woman’s sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it,” Place argues that the destruction of the character leaves the image of the femme fatale untouched: “it is her strength and visual texture that is inevitably printed in our memory, not her ultimate destruction.”

The image of the femme fatale benefits from the highly stylized nature of film noirs. I would also argue that the complicated plots of film noirs purposefully facilitate a spectator’s gaze to the femme fatale.

This may also be the idea behind the prominence of such “name titles,” as Gilda and Laura, or allusive titles like The Lady from Shanghai. (It may be worth mentioning that The Hitch-Hiker, a film noir, was one of the only American mainstream films to be directed by a woman, Ida Lupino, in the 50’s.)

Place looks beyond the story and considers mythmaking of film noir and cinema in general. She also considers the long-lasting impact of the image, which stands in opposition to textual readings of the films themselves, which tends to dominate film criticism and general discourses on cinema.

“In film noir,” she writes, “we observe both the social action of myth which damns the sexual woman and all who become enmeshed by her and a particularly potent stylistic presentation of the sexual strength of woman which man fears.”

Pictured: Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s