Femme Fatale

A femme fatale [fem fuh-tahl] is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; however, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having some power over men. The phrase is French for ‘deadly woman.’

A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. In some situations, she uses lying or coercion rather than charm. She may also make use of some subduing weapon such as sleeping gas, a modern analog of magical powers in older tales. She may also be (or imply that she is) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape; ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (a 1947 film noir) is one such example. A younger version of a femme fatale would be called a fille fatale, or ‘deadly girl.’

Although typically villainous, if not morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification and unease, femmes fatales have also appeared as antiheroines in some stories, and some even repent and become true heroines by the end of the tale. Some stories even feature benevolent and heroic femmes fatales who use their wiles to snare the villain for the greater good. In social life, a more malevolent femme fatale tends to torture her lover in an asymmetrical relationship, denying confirmation of her affection. She usually drives him to the point of obsession and exhaustion, so that he is incapable of making rational decisions.

The femme fatale archetype exists in the folklore and myth of many cultures. Ancient mythical, legendary and historical archetypes include Mohini (Hinduism); Lilith, Delilah, and Jezebal (Judaism); Salome (Christianity); the Sirens, the Sphinx, Scylla, Aphrodite, Clytemnestra, and Medea (Greek mythology) and Cleopatra. The femme fatale was a common figure in the European Middle Ages, often portraying the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The pre-medieval inherited Biblical figure of Eve offers an example, as does the wicked, seductive enchantress typified in Morgan le Fay. The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ shows her more muted presence during the Age of Enlightenment

The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and ‘Lamia.’ Along with them, there arose the gothic novel, ‘The Monk’ featuring Matilda, a very powerful femme fatale. This led to her appearing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as the vampire, notably in Carmilla and ‘Brides of Dracula.’ ‘The Monk’ was greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade, for whom the femme fatale symbolized not evil, but all the best qualities of Women, with his novel ‘Juliette’ being perhaps the earliest wherein the femme fatale triumphs. Pre-Raphaelite painters frequently used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a subject.

In the Western culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the femme fatale became a more fashionable trope, and she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Gustave Moreau. The novel ‘À rebours’ by Joris-Karl Huysmans includes these fevered imaginings about an image of Salome in a Moreau painting: ‘No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

She also is seen as a prominent figure in late nineteenth and twentieth century opera, appearing in Richard Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ (‘Kundry’), George Bizet’s ‘Carmen,’ Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Samson et Delilah,’ and Alban Berg’s ‘Lulu’ (based on the plays ‘Erdgeist’ and ‘Die Büchse der Pandora’ by Frank Wedekind). In fin-de-siècle decadence, Oscar Wilde reinvented the femme fatale in the play ‘Salome’: she manipulates her lust-crazed uncle, King Herod, with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde’s invention) to agree to her imperious demand: ‘bring me the head of John the Baptist.’ Later, Salome was the subject of an opera by Strauss, was popularized on stage, screen, and peep-show booth in countless reincarnations. Another enduring icon of glamour, seduction, and moral turpitude is Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876–1917). While working as an exotic dancer, she took the stage name Mata Hari. Although she may have been innocent, she was accused of German espionage and was put to death by a French firing squad. After her death she became the subject of many sensational films and books. Other considerably famous femmes fatales are Isabella of France, Hedda Gabler of Kristiania (now Oslo), and Marie Antoinette of Austria.

One traditionional view portrays the femme fatale as a sexual vampire; her charms leach the virility and independence of lovers, leaving them shells of themselves. Rudyard Kipling took inspiration from a vampire painted by Philip Burne-Jones, an image typical of the era in 1897, to write his poem ‘The Vampire.’ Like much of Kipling’s verse it became very popular, and its refrain: ‘A fool there was…,’ describing a seduced man, became the title of the popular 1915 film ‘A Fool There Was’ that made Theda Bara a star. The poem was used in the publicity for the film. On this account, in early American slang the femme fatale was called a ‘vamp,’ short for vampire. From the American film-audience perspective, the femme fatale often appeared foreign, usually either of indeterminate Eastern European or Asian ancestry. She was the sexual counterpart to wholesome actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford.

During the film-noir era of the 1940s and 1950s, the femme fatale flourished in American cinema. Examples include Brigid O’Shaughnessy, portrayed by Mary Astor, who murders Sam Spade’s partner in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941); Gene Tierney as Ellen Brent Harland in ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ (1945), and the cabaret singer portrayed by Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda’ (1946), narcissistic wives who manipulate their husbands; Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944), Ava Gardner in ‘The Killers,’ and Cora (Lana Turner) in ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ both based on novels by James M. Cain, manipulate men into killing their husbands. In the Hitchcock film ‘The Paradine Case’ (1947), Alida Valli’s character causes the deaths of two men and the near destruction of another. Another frequently cited example is the character Jane played by Lizabeth Scott in ‘Too Late for Tears’ (1949); during her quest to keep some dirty money from its rightful recipient and her husband, she uses poison, lies, sexual teasing and a gun to keep men wrapped around her finger. Jane Greer remains notable as a murderous femme fatale using her wiles on Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’ (1949).

The femme fatale has carried on to the present day, in films such as ‘Body Heat’ (1981) and ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ (1985) – both with Kathleen Turner; ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Isabella Rossellini as the seductive torch singer Dorthy Vallens; ‘The Last Seduction’ (1994) with Linda Fiorentino; and ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992) with Sharon Stone. Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman has constantly played femme fatales over her career in such films as ‘To Die For,’ ‘The Paperboy,’ and ‘Moulin Rouge.’

The femme fatale has generated divergent opinions among social scientists. Some relate the concept to misogyny and fear of witchcraft, and to male fears of feminism. Others say the femme fatale ‘remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles,’ or ‘expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.’ Jungians consider the femme fatale as an expression of the negative aspect of the anima (the feminine part of a man).


One Comment to “Femme Fatale”

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.