This essay is by our guest writer, Cody Corrall.
The classic femme fatale is elusive. She is a film noir staple: Gilda and Honey West. She uses her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarchy, but is inevitably foiled for having challenged it. Since the creation of the femme fatale, however, there hasn’t been a modern version that holds up. This is because the femme fatale, while a beacon of sexuality, is inherently a political statement.
In the height of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, the rights of the straight cisgendered white woman were the next to be fought for. While these rights may not have been fully achieved yet, the rise of feminism and liberation have weeded out the femme fatale from modern cinema. This archetype no longer fits the rebellion and desire for power of the femme fatale. In order for a femme fatale to work in today’s society, it must be queered. We see these modern depictions of the queer femme fatale in Pedro Almodovar’s 2004 film Bad Education, and in David Lynch’s 2001 cult classic Mulholland Drive.
Traditionally, the femme fatale is a woman who strives to achieve power in a male-dominated world, oftentimes using her own sexuality as leverage. But the femme fatale at its core emulates a marginalized identity that challenges and threatens the people in power. “While she is a sexualized woman who asserts her right to her body, it is her struggle to create her own identity and independence that threatens masculinity and patriarchal ethos of society,” says Brigida Pastor in Queering Gender: The New Femme Fatale in Almodóvar’s La mala educación. The femme fatale often yearns for autonomy and independence and uses her sexuality to achieve these things. But in the end, the femme fatale will always be destroyed by her own ambitions.
What is most fascinating about Almodovar’s Bad Education is the fact that he is able to reinvent the femme fatale in such a male dominated film. Juan, the queer-but-not-queer aspiring actor, takes on the persona of his transgender sibling Ignacio to become a movie star. “Because the figure of Ignacio is sexually ambiguous on the most fundamental level, you don’t mind the absence of a major female character….The attraction and repulsion exerted by the two Ignacio’s lend the film all the sinister heat and tension you could hope for,” says Stephen Holden in a review for The New York Times.
As Ignacio, he visits Enrique, Ignacio’s first love–now a film director, to produce a movie about their lives and abuse in the Catholic Church entitled The Visit. Before the timeline of the film is revealed, Juan and Berenguer, Ignacio’s abuser, engage in a confused sexual relationship and later murder Ignacio. Juan is riddled with ambition to a fault, similarly to the femme fatale, and will do anything to create an identity and to further his own lofty career goals.
There are several players within film noir. In contrast to the femme fatale, there is the “straight man.” In Bad Education, that role is played by Enrique. Not to say that Enrique is straight, in fact, he is the most openly queer character in the film. Enrique acts as the norm, or a new social order. In classic film noir, this idea is based on the patriarchy – traditionally held upon male vs. female.
In a film noir where every character is queer in some way, the battle isn’t gay vs. straight, it’s openly gay vs. the closeted or confused gay. “Their greater crime is not that they killed Enrique’s childhood sweetheart, but that neither of them fit into the social order Enrique creates,” says Pastor. Enrique’s normalized queerness acts as the societal norm that Juan and Berenguer simply cannot fit into. And as the femme fatale, Juan’s sole purpose is to reject and rebel from Enrique’s norms.
Near the end of the film, we see Juan’s punishment for his rejection of the status quo. On set, he reenacts the fictionalized version of Ignacio’s murder, or “Zarhara” as the character is named in The Visit, and brings Juan to shame. While he is coming to terms with the fact that he killed his sibling, he is also realizing his lack of a personal identity. He is not entirely Juan anymore, but he is not entirely Zarhara. He exists in a grey space in a world that enforces binaries.
In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the character of Rita embodies another queered femme fatale. The film, like Bad Education, deals with the themes of making movies and expertly plays with time and disorienting narrative structures. There are two prominent timelines, one that is reality and one that is a dream-state. Rita is the dream version of Camilla Rhodes, an actress attempting to make it in Hollywood. In the dream timeline, Rita suffers from amnesia and picks a new identity after seeing a poster of the aforementioned femme fatale Rita Hayworth. She develops a relationship with Betty, Dianne in reality, and work together to find out who the real Rita is.
In the real world, Camilla Rhodes embodies a sexual effervescence. She has control over her own sexuality and, as a result, everyone she comes in contact with. Because of this, she gets everything she wants – including her dream role and her director husband. “Ultimately, ‘the girl’ is neither passively chosen nor punished by her wayward sexual allure…She steals the show, securing her career as well as marriage with the director. And as her kissing another woman in one of the last scenes in the film indicates, this femme fatale retains her sexual power and freedom” says Frida Beckman in “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch.”
Camilla gets her punishment when she is killed by a hitman ordered by Diane, who was jealous of her getting the role and angered by being replaced by the director. As with all femme fatales, their challenging of the norms in place; for Camilla, sexual power and fluidity is what leads them to their demise. Diane couldn’t handle Camilla’s existence, as she lived so comfortably outside of the norms she felt trapped by.
Bad Education and Mulholland Drive are two examples of modern films with engaging and accurate femme fatales – and they are both queer. In an ever-changing time, archetypes who symbolize liberation and a longing for identity, like the femme fatales, have to adapt to survive. As queerness is inherently disruptive, especially in regards to social norms, it acts as a perfect modern adaptation to a classic film staple.