Femme Fatale: Cinema’s Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies, by Dominique Manon and James Ursini. New York: Viking, 2009. Paperback $24.95, 400pp. ISBN: 0-87910-369-8. Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn. London: Titan Books, 2009. Hardcover, $29.95, 160pp. ISBN: 1-84856-229-2.
The typical writing in photo books is often lousy, let’s face it. Either the writer knows that no one will be reading it anyway — at least not all the way through, or the guy who brings the most photos to the book has written it and is better at collecting and lovingly preserving old stills than writing.
The first few pages are a great example of the good and bad in film books. Beautifully designed in dusky dark crimson and black text, the title of Ursini and Manon’s book lies opposite a picture of Angelina Jolie in a negligee, looking as if she’s pulling herself off the floor. The picture is deep and dark in purples and reds that make it resemble a J. W. Waterhouse or Edward Burne-Jones painting. Then on the first page is a 19th-century painting of Empress Theodora, and the comparison does much for making Jolie and Theodora seem as direct links in a long femme fatale chain.
The actual text in Femme Fatale, however, includes bizarre, thesis-pounding captions like “Angelina Jolie emits the femme fatale aura in this publicity photo” or the suspiciously creationist subtext of the introduction’s opening sentence: “The femme fatale is such a quintessential part of our collective imagination expressed in art, literature, and media that some of her earliest appearances can be found as far back as the Judeo-Christian bible” (2).
Hmmm, to say nothing of the weird grammar, the femme fatale goes all the way that far back? I mean, is there no mention of her anywhere before then, say in ancient Greece or Chinese folklore? Later sentences can get even more florid and presumptuous than that, such as discussing Jolie’s first big role:
My responses to this sentence range from delight to outrage to concern, the unconscious parallel between power and androgyny (over, say, feminine attire), the demarking of Jolie less as a human than as an archetype (actresses and their characters seem regularly confused in the book, and are frequently referred to as animals who are “destroyed” rather than killed.(272) and the fact that no one even saw Foxfire, in 1996 or now. If they did, they certainly didn’t notice anyone leaving any tattoos on any archetypes; they probably only noticed how bad the script was (had the writer ever even gone to high school?)
But who’s to complain about film writing choices? From Bebe Daniels to Ornella Muti (Princess Aura in Flash Gordon), from Isabella Sarli to Sybil Danning, from Dietrich to Dalle, everyone is here, in beautiful photos — both color and b&w, laid out by loving hands who know their cinema backwards and forwards. Even the sternest grammarian must applaud, in the end, the way art and trash are so gleefully lumped together.
Adding a feeling of uneasiness is Hearn’s frankness when dealing with the amount of child abuse, molestation, rape and abandonment these starlets suffered, and making you realize, by implication, just how interconnected sex symbol stardom, prostitution and child abuse really are. Though the British could probably never be as horrifically tawdry as America and Showgirls, lord knows they can try, and as Austin Powers teaches, socialized dentistry ups the sordidness significantly.
It’s hard to read something like that there amidst the gorgeous color publicity shots that comprise the bulk of Hammer Glamour. In fact, it’s hard to accept the whole history of mankind, a history so awash in rape, genocide and horror that cheesecake books can be seen — as they often are by hardcore feminists — as part of the problem. Perhaps that’s why femme fatales and glamorous horror stars are so important in the cosmic archetypal lexicon, for though they’re the bad guys, we root for them anyway, as any act of violence or treachery against men seems well-warranted, every blow a “triumph over old fogeys everywhere.” Simultaneously that means we position ourselves as outside that framework while squirming with guilt anyway.
Of course, part of that fascination lies in the knowledge we can be exploited, tempted and ruined ourselves. One man can destroy the world, but there will always be at least one woman who can destroy that man, even if it’s only his mother. If the femme fatales are meant largely to sell tickets through titillation, they also force us to address the inequities of the social order wherein men judge — both fearing and desiring — women for using sex as a tool for power while robbing them of all other options. Of course the strong independent woman can’t be satisfied with two car garages, an apron and a husband who’s never home, and if she has to be repressed by the patriarchy, the least she can do is topple part of it on the way down. We still living in its coded borders can only sigh in relief when she’s gone, and then long for, canonize and celebrate her daring from afar, later, through books and movies.