The Femme Fatale: Cousin to the Pushy Bitch


The Modern Femme Fatale

It’s interesting to see women fare as archetypes in cinema: old crone, mad bag lady, the femme fatale. Curious to find out more about the latter we asked film writer and postgraduate student Felix Hockey to fill us in on a little more depth behind this figure. Who exactly is the femme fatale?

A Long History

The untrustworthy woman has been an archetype of stories for as long stories have existed, from the Sirens of Homers Odyssey to the Bible’s Salome and since the birth of cinema, there have been female characters that manipulate in order to gain. One example is the provocative city girl in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927) who entices the man with her modern way of life to kill his wife and be with her. The term Femme Fatale, however, is popularly known as being an element of the film noir.

Film Noir

Film noir took shape from a certain atmosphere of the post-war era, with nihilism being the main outlook on the world. The main character was often a cynical man, lost in the busyness of the modern world and unable to become an active contributor of his own destiny. In a number of these film noirs, the man is lead astray by a woman who manipulates him into further acts of crime and debauchery.

This character stems from the male anxiety of the change in women’s roles in society at the time. With most of the men away during the war, women started to enter the workforce in much larger numbers. When the war was over, many did not want to return to the way things were before and with this, women were given more of an opportunity for independence, threatening traditional ideas of the household and patriarchy.

The most famous femme fatales perhaps feature in the films of Billy Wilder. In Double Indemnity the role is taken up my housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwick) who seduces insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in order to attain his help in planning the murder of her husband whilst Sunset Boulevard (1950) features Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the faded Hollywood actress who finds companionship in screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) but becomes manipulative as things start to turn out wrong. In both of these films, the femme fatale has a firm grasp on the protagonist which only weakens near then end.

Although the era of film noir more or less ended in the final years of the 1950s, the femme fatale has continued to be seen in television and cinema. This has included a variety of films that refer back to the noir period, such as L.A Confidential and Who Framed Roger Rabbit but there have also been modern femme fatales that reflect very contemporary anxieties of the time. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014) uses both her sexuality and intelligence to frame her husband for her murder, giving presence to a fear of false accusation and unwanted media attention.

Nightcrawler’s Nina Romina is arguably another who meets the archetype, bringing a face to the media’s lack of concern for truth over sensationalism. Whilst she is not the one to propose it, she also chooses to sleep with the protagonist in order to keep gain footage she knows may not have been made legally. Other filmmakers have used the femme fatale trope to explore more timeless anxieties, notably seen in Inception (Nolan, 2010) where the embodiment of loss and guilt is embodied by Marillon Cotillard in the role of Mal, the memory of Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) late wife who haunts him in his dreams and thwarts his attempts to return to his life.

Like the genres in which the femme fatale features, she will continue to change with the times as the social functions of the past become less relevant, yet the character is likely to continue to represent the contemporary anxieties of her world throughout the future of film, both via a male view of femininity and broader worries at large in the social consensus.