Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is a very bad American girl who does very bad things. She steals diamonds from an actress at the Cannes Film Festival cheats her partners in crime wears a lot of very suggestive underwear and has lots and lots of manipulative sex with women and with men. Set mainly in Belleville France and spanning seven years--twice--Femme Fatale asks whether or not leopards can change their spots and if they can what does it take? Meeting a nice girl who just lost her husband and child--and who happens to look just like you--sure can help although if you choose to steal her passport and identity after you watch her blow her brains out odds are your leopard-skin lingerie is there to stay. Of course all any proper bad girl really needs to turn her black heart to gold is the love of a good man so when Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) ex-paparazzo enters the picture we know it's only a matter of time before Laure comes to her senses.
Stamos (Rollerball) is a bad bad girl in Femme Fatale and she's got a bit of a reputation as a bad bad actress in real life which is largely the reason for the poor pre-release press this film has received much to director Brian De Palma's (Mission to Mars) chagrin. But believe it or not she's not completely horrible in the film which required her to speak French (she did passably well) strip to her skivvies (she did remarkably well--more than once) and play multiple characters. The scenes between Stamos and the slickly charming brooding Banderas (Original Sin) are the highlights of the film but sometimes Banderas is so campy that it throws the whole thing off kilter. Why in the heck is Banderas prancing around and lisping pretending to be gay and eliciting chuckles and sometimes even outright laughter from the audience? I mean he's funny and he makes the scene funny and hey I laughed. But this is supposed to be noir. You're not supposed to laugh.
Banderas' schizophrenic performance is merely a symptom of Femme Fatale's fatal flaw: it's a derivative film that just can't decide what it wants to be. It tries to be a sexy tale of the twisted woman à la Basic Instinct but Stamos just doesn't have enough mystique about her to pull that off (shedding her clothes at every possible moment doesn't help). It strives to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller but unlike The Sixth Sense a film whose surprise ending left audiences wanting to see the movie again to check for clues the revelation at the end of Femme Fatale leaves you feeling like an idiot because you should have seen it coming. After the twist the film tells the same story a second time with the heroine making a different choice and thereby changing the life we thought she had lived (Sliding Doors anyone?). It's interesting to analyze Femme Fatale as a pastiche of modern filmmaking but taken as a whole the movie's got a lot less going for it than any of the films it tries to emulate.
Graham Granville is a highly neurotic jerky nerd from Kansas who journeys with his hip Los Angeles-based brother Allen (aka Rex) to the rundown French chateau they have both inherited from a long-lost French relative. While Allen is much more together than his klutzy bro neither bonds comfortably with any of the help who remain at the chateau. These include Isabelle the maid with a secret and Jean the elderly servant with a secret. The brothers break the servants' hearts with news that they have decided to sell the dilapidated castle but Graham impulsively assures them that their positions will be included in the sale as a package. Business-savvy Allen who has learned the fine art of making a profit by running a sex-oriented Web site is eager to find a buyer. A coarse American party animal arrives on the scene to buy but Graham hasn't the heart to unload on such a creep. Mercenary instincts are further waylaid when the brothers confront revelations about some of the downstairs staff who have a more personal stake in the fate of the chateau.
Depending on one's tolerance for jerks Paul Rudd as heir Graham Granville will either charm or annoy to death. Romany Malco as brother Allen/Rex has great charisma and like Rudd is a fine and confident actor who will one day rise to the occasion when it presents itself. In supporting roles French stars Sylvie Testud as Isabelle the maid and Didier Flamand as Jean are more than adequate although neither is afforded the opportunity to chew up the ragged scenery. Donal Logue as a crass party-boy American who may buy the chateau amuses as France's worst nightmare of the loud-mouthed Yank with plenty of bucks but no style.
First-timer Jesse Peretz who directs from his own idea doesn't embarrass with his debut. Nor does he show unassailable promise. He lets The Chateau smack ever so subtly as a vanity project and suggests there's more self-indulgence than intelligence behind this sloppy goofy but well-meaning effort. Still Peretz daring to do the ridiculous comes up with an original. Like the chateau the film is a sight for sore eyes but has enough bright moments to spark mild interest. The often grainy digital visuals and improvisational style mesh perfectly with its let's-just-have-fun-and-amuse spirit. Videophiles may want to check out how the film manages to get so much definition from candle-lit scenes. Whatever its cinematic and commercial challenges at least The Chateau dares to deal pungently and amusingly with the social and cultural chasms separating Frogs and Yanks. In English and occasional French with some subtitles the film often pleases because its goals are obviously so modest.