The CGI performance-capture version of Angelina Jolie as “Grendel’s Mother” (the only name ever used to refer to her) in Robert Zemeckis’s 3-D Beowulf is just the latest in a line of cartoonishly exaggerated femmes fatales to be found in Zemeckis’s work.
The first and most iconic of these is Jessica Rabbit (top) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). As Jessica herself truthfully explains in Kathleen Turner’s throaty voice, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.” Jessica Rabbit, the humanoid spouse of the very rabbitish Roger, was inspired by numerous incarnations of noir ’40s sexuality: Rita Hayworth, Rhonda Fleming, but most of all, by the title character introduced in Tex Avery’s classic 1943 short, “Red Hot Riding Hood.” Both Jessica and “Red” are so hot that when they sing and dance they inspire lust-filled males to pound their heads repeatedly with hammers until their tongues uncurl across nightclub tables and their eyeballs pop out. The most significant difference between the two? “Red” is a cartoon character in a cartoon world – the males she inspires to self-abuse are literally wolves. Jessica Rabbit, on the other hand, is a cartoon character who lives in the “real” world. In Zemeckis’s sly parody of segregation, Jessica is a second-class citizen, a “toon,” treated at best as a sex object, at worst in the same way the “real” humans in the film treat animated ducks, rabbits, and mice.
Lisle von Rhoman as played by Isabella Rossellini (middle) in Death Becomes Her (1992) may be real flesh and blood, but she is still more than human. She represents eternal beauty and eternal youth and, as such, tempts the characters played by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn to pay a fortune for a potion they believe will confer the same immortal properties onto them. With her Louise Brooks-like hairstyle, von Rhoman is one of those rare temptresses whose primary target is women.
Grendel’s Mother (bottom), the most recent femme fatale in Zemeckis’s gallery, only appears human, and she does so in order to tempt the warriors who come to kill her to mate with her instead. Like everything else in Beowulf, she is a CGI creation, and therein lies the film’s primary problem. To put it bluntly, CGI circa 2007 looks distractingly fake – too real to be accepted as abstraction, yet too obviously artificial to be accepted as real. Like the computer duplications of flesh and blood in Cronenberg’s The Fly, something intangible is missing. The CGI may be fine for older characters or monsters like Grendel whose skin is heavily textured, but – as so many viewers have pointed out – the younger smoother-skinned characters such as Robin Wright Penn’s Warrior Queen look like something made out of dead rubber. Jolie’s character fares somewhat better, because her skin is covered with molten gold making her resemble one of Hajime Sorayma’s sexy robots.
Until some group of geniuses works out the bugs in present-day CGI technique, all “realistic” CGI films will continue to look like feature-length videogames. Far better to place real flesh and blood actors in CGI backgrounds, as Robert Rodriguez did so effectively in Sin City, or Peter Jackson – even more brilliantly – in Lord of the Rings. Zemeckis’s Beowulf, for all its technical accomplishment, already looks more dated than his Roger Rabbit, its CGI animation providing no competition for old-fashioned ink and paint. Thus, my ranking of Zemeckis’s femmes fatales: Grendel’s Mother – Somewhat Sexy; Lisle von Rhoman – Sexier; Jessica Rabbit – Sexiest!