Poor imitation: Femme Fatale could be fatal

With thousands of people in the world suffering from constipation, "piece of shit" is not a phrase to be used loosely; but after wasting two hours of my life watching Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, I'm so furious it will take me a little time to regain the subtleties of the critical lexicon.

De Palma has made a handful of decent movies in his 30-plus-year career, but this is the third in a row (after Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars) to have no redeeming cinematic value. Even some of his better work is often annoying because of his obsession with imitating Hitchcock. Femme Fatale is a movie Hitchcock might have made if he'd been a cheesy softcore pornographer.

It opens on a television screen showing one of the great femmes fatales of all time, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. As the camera pulls back, we see French subtitles on the screen. and the focus gradually shifts to the person watching: a near-naked blonde named Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).

If De Palma were smart, he would have shifted focus the other way and let us watch Double Indemnity for two hours. If you're smart when you have to choose between the two of them in the video store... well, you'll know what to do.

A man (Eriq Ebouaney) enters the room, makes Laure get dressed, and rattles off a bunch of boring details about the heist they're about to pull. To be sure he's got her attention, he gives her one of the phoniest-looking slaps in film history.

They're at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival (the only way De Palma can get in is with a camera), where a gorgeous model (Rie Rasmussen) is wearing over $10 million worth of diamonds. Laure whispers in her ear, and they meet in the ladies' room, which Laure clears out by caressing the only other occupant. Then comes the first scene gay women and straight men are waiting for (no prize for guessing which group De Palma is pandering to), where the women make out in a stall. Laure removes the model's jewelry, including a diamond-studded, all-revealing, serpentine "top," and drops it on the floor where her accomplice replaces it with imitations.

Laure gets away with the loot, leaving several angry confederates behind. But that's just the beginning. She stumbles into the identity of Lily, a suicidal doppelganger, and hops a plane to America where she sits next to politician Bruce Watts (Peter Coyote). Seven years later they return to France as man and wife. He's the new U.S. ambassador, and she's paranoid about having her picture taken (as if a politician's wife can avoid it).

Femme Fatale is the kind of movie where people do the strangest things to advance the plot, not because any human being who ever lived might possibly do those things in a million years. Antonio Banderas plays Nicolas Bardo, a reluctant paparazzo who gets a photo of Laure, then hooks up with her as she improvises a complex plot on the spur of the moment. She also jeopardizes her own scheme by getting drunk in a club full of rough biker types and luring one of them into a private room where she does a strip to turn him and Nicolas on so they'll fight over her.

Most of the things that are surprising in this movie are surprising because they make no sense. I won't go into the twisty finale except to say De Palma shouldn't have gone into it either. It's probably intended to make you go back and see the movie again, but I think you'll agree once is more than enough.

Hitchcock fans can pass the time by noting what De Palma steals from each of his films, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window. Ryuichi Sakamoto's score has some nice faux-Bernard Herrmann riffs.

For Banderas to have this as a follow-up to Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever is the sign of a career in trouble, if not in crisis. Romijn-Stamos can hope her supporting role in X-Men 2 will erase the memory of the worst lead performance by a model since Cindy Crawford in Fair Game. (At least Crawford didn't have to say, "You don't have to lick my ass, just f*** me" or "This world is hell and you're nothing but a f***in' patsy.")

There's some subtitled French dialogue, too. I hope Warner Bros. is properly embarrassed by the title that says, "The bitche double-crossed us." Even bargain-basement Hong Kong action movies have gotten better than that.

One of the mysteries of the industry is how De Palma continues to work when better filmmakers fall by the wayside. He's lost sight of the difference between creating a mystery and just confusing people.

In one scene Nicolas is interrogated by Police Inspector Serra (Que Sera Serra?), who tells him, "I'm kind of a mystery buff myself, and you know what kind of mystery this is?"

Yes, I wanted to yell at the screen: a bad one!