The Femme Fatale: Ambiguity and Death

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  • Topic: Femme fatale, Rita Hayworth, Gilda
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  • Published : December 9, 2010
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The Femme Fatale: Ambiguity and Death

In cinema, the femme fatale is an enticing, exquisitely beautiful, erotic character who plays the ultimate trick of nature: she displays her beauty, captures the man and goes in for the kill. Unfortunately for this poisonous flower, male dominated western society interferes and kills the female predator in the end. In western cinema, the femme fatale can never survive, and can never “win” in the battle of the sexes. But why must this be so? What makes the femme fatale such a dangerously curious character for the hero as well as the viewer? In E. Ann Kaplan’s’ Women in Film Noir, Richard Dyer states “…women in film noir are above all else unknowable. It is not so much their evil as their unknowability (and attractiveness) that makes them fatal for the hero.” (Dyer, p.92) Dyer’s observation alludes to the connection between the ambiguous female and the desperate need for the male to reveal her in order to possess her; it is the fear of the “unknowable” woman that makes her a direct target. This essay will explore the notion of ambiguity as a source of life as well as the ultimate reason for the death of the femme fatale.

Before delving into the idea of ambiguity and its power of life and death for the femme fatale, an exploration into the actual women behind the character-type is crucial. The actress who portrays an ambiguous woman must herself, possess ambiguity, or she will never be believable and the fantasy of the femme fatale character is broken. Once we can see through the “bad girl” act, the portrayal becomes completely unsuccessful. Two actresses became infamous for their portrayals of two of the most well known femme fatales: Louise Brooks as Lulu and Rita Hayworth as Gilda.

In G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who infects men (and women) with her erotic gaze and causes much mayhem in a 1920’s Weimar Germany. The actress who would play Lulu had to be able to truly depict the kind of femme fatale that Pabst envisioned and would successfully capture on camera. The character of Lulu is a hedonistic carefree spirit who is well aware of her feminine wilds and understands the politics of sex. In the film, we watch as she manipulates many people with her beauty and eroticism and even plays with us, the viewer, as if she is aware we are watching her perform. But the woman we are watching is not Lulu; she is Louise Brooks frolicking on camera. Brooks possess the ambiguity of the Lulu character as opposed to just portraying ambiguity on behalf of the role. Before the film even begins Louise Brooks is presenting an ambiguous persona, being an American actress starring in a German film, the audience is already simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Molly Haskell writes in her book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, that Pabst “in his search for the ideal Lulu for Pandora’s Box, found [Marlene] Dietrich, his ‘countrywoman,’ too ‘old’ and too ‘knowing.’”(Haskell, p. 83) Pabst needed an actress who was unknowable and unknown so that the mystery of the Lulu character would always be present. The audience is wondering who Lulu is as well as who Louise Brooks is; such a game keeps the viewers attention always on Lulu/Louise. If Pabst had used the already famous Dietrich in Pandora’s Box, the initial sense of ambiguity would no longer exist, as Dietrich is a recognizable German actress and the femme fatale that is Lulu, would not be passable.

Contributing to the allure of female ambiguity, Molly Haskell writes that directors and critics alike “find their erotic fancies tickled by women who are at opposite sides of the sexual-cultural pole from themselves.” (Haskell, p. 82-3) The sexual appeal of the “exotic” woman is apart of the racial ambiguity that both Louise Brooks- an American actress playing a femme fatale in Germany, and Rita Hayworth- playing an American living in Argentina share....
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