The femme fatale “is fabricated, reconstructed in, and apparently necessary to, the cultural expressions of the…century. She is a powerful and threatening figure, bearing sexuality that is perceived to be rapacious, or fatal to her male partners…she can be a prostititue, man-hunting aristrocat, vampire, African queen, native (black) woman or murderess. She crosses boundaries of class and race” (Stott Fabrication viii)

“the femme fatale comes in many guises, but she is always Other. She is always outside, either literally or metaphorically, for as sexually fatal women she represents chaos, darkness, death, all that lies beyond the safe, the known, and the normal. In effect,  the major common feature of the femme fatale is that of positionality: she is a multiple sign singuralised by her postiiton of Otherness” Stott 37-38)

The figure of the femme fatale, or a woman who is dangerous for and even lethal to a man, has been a consistent staple of the culture surrounding the notions of femininity since the time of Ishtar. She has the ability to strike fear in the hearts of men through time and culture. She can come in many forms, but in the core she poses a threat to a patriarchal system. The femme fatale has not failed to capture the imaginations of popular literature and film. Throughout both mediums, much of the same themes make themselves known.  A closer examination of the femme fatale in film shows us that although cultures shift and ideas and technologies change, the femme fatale still lurks in the shadows and can even be made into a Hollywood star.

However, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the ability to present these dangerous vixens didn’t happen without a fair share of fighting and overcoming obstacles–namely in the form of the Motion Picture Production Code. This Code that affected films created in Hollywood from 1930 to 1968 had the intent of upholding “ideal” forms of sexuality, religion, familial relationships, and general morality. However, although the femme fatale went through a difficult time period in trying to get through the censors (because she doesn’t fall into the model of housewife and mother the Code upheld)–the end result when she did make it through is all the more fascinating to watch! (Information from Mainon and Ursini)

Notable Femmes Fatales In Film:

(Information Gathered From Mainon and Ursini)

THEDA BARA (1855-1955): (“Arab Death” anagram)

Theda Bara Publicity Pose

Theda Bara Publicity Pose

“One of the first film actresses to take on the roles of cuch formidable literary and historical femmes fatales as Carmen, Camille, Salome, Madame Du Barry, and Cleopatra” (Mainon and Ursini 9)

Theda Bara was an American silent film actress and one of the most recognizable sex symbols in the 1920s. She was the first woman to be called “The Vamp” (as in Vampire), which is to this day a slang term for a predatory female. It is worthy to mention that “The Vamp” persona did not originate on its own, and that the Fox Film Company meticulously crafted their first real star as a notorious femme fatale. According to Fox, Theda Bara was born in the Sahara Desert to a French artist and Egyptian concubine.

Theda Bara in Cleopatra

Theda Bara in Cleopatra

Although much of Theda Bara’s films have been lost, we are still in possession of her 1915 film A Fool There Was. In this film, Bara plays a character known simply as “The Vampire” which epitomizes the femme fatale. Upon first seeing “The Vampire,” Bara’s character’s destructive and malicious nature comes to light. Here, she takes a rose in her hand only to take its head and rip it into pieces with pleasure.

A Fool There Was: The Vampire Sadistic Flower Scene

In the remainder of the film, The Vampire has three male victims who all suffer at the hands of this femme fatale. We are first introduced to a man who has become a vagabond, warning all men about her treachery. The second, is an alcoholic who shoots himself  after The Vampire says “Kiss me, my fool.”

Theda Bara: \”Kiss Me, My Fool\”

The third and final victim loses his career, family, and life because of his relationship with The Vampire. In the final scene, we see this man lying at The Vampire’s feet while she spreads a flower’s petals over his dead body.

Corpse and Flowers Scene, See 2:31-3:02

By the end of the film, the message to the audience became clear: “To get involved with a sexual woman was equivalent to death itself(Dijkstra in Evil Sisters on A Fool There Was 11).

Theda Bara
GRETA GARBO (1905-1990)
“the dream factory capitalized on that sensuality and produced yet another archetype of the American movies: the femme fatale as goddess, a superior being who men cannot resist adoring” (Mainon and Ursini 64)
Seductive Greta Garbo

Seductive Greta Garbo

Swedish actress Greta Garbo was one of Hollywood’s greatest film stars of the late 1920s and 1930s. Garbo donned the role of the femme fatale in many films including The Temptress (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926), Susan Lennox: Her Fall and Rise (1931), and Camille (1936).
Menacing and Alluring Greta Garbo

Menacing and Alluring Greta Garbo

The film that best typifies Greta Garbo’s femme fatale status is MGM’s 1931, Mata Hari. Mata Hari is known as the Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was female double agent in World War I. She is said to have been executed by the French for spying for the Germans, however the validity of these charges remains a mystery to this day. Mata Hari has been depicted as a femme fatale in various works of popular culture, including Garbo’s film.

Garbo as Mata Hari

Garbo as Mata Hari

Mata Hari Trailer

Towards the beginning of the film, we see Garbo as Mata Hari dancing erotically in front of a statue of Shiva. Here, she caresses the statues limbs passionately. The scene was deemed so erotic, the production company reduced the scene’s length and cut the section where Garbo fully disrobes. It is in this erotic moment that Mata Hari meets her male victim in the film. Rosanoff, a young Russian soldier, is completely devoted to Garbo’s character from this moment on. Garbo’s status as a femme fatale and the victimization of Romanoff at her hands is best viewed in a scene involving an icon of the Madonna. In this section of the film, Mata spots the icon with jealousy as a rival goddess. She subsequently demands Romanoff to extinguish the icon’s candle if he truly loves her, even though his mother had told him never to commit such an action. Romanoff initially resists, but once Mata refuses his advances, Romanoff quickly complies. This scene clearly depicts Garbo’s success as a goddess-like femme fatale.

Garbo\’s Mata Hari and the Madonna

HEDY LAMARR (1914-2000)

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, Austrian actress born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Jewish parents, was a dangerously seductive woman both in her film career and in her personal life. Throughout her lifetime, Lamarr had a total of six husbands, the first of which she left with “jewels in hand.” A contract star for MGM, Lamarr was a major force during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Lamarr starred in her role as a femme fatale in various motion pictures including Ecstasy (1933), Boom Town (1940), White Cargo (1942), The Strange Woman (1946), and Samson and Delilah (1949).

Hedy Lamarr Menacingly Holds a Whip

Hedy Lamarr Menacingly Holds a Whip

Cecil B. DeMille\’s Samson and Delilah Trailer

Hedy Lamarr’s most successful film, Samson and Delilah, tells the Biblical tale of an original femme fatale. In the Biblical narrative, Samson is a man who is protected by God and given superhuman strength. He then falls in love with a woman named Delilah, who has been paid by the Philistines to betray Samson and reveal the source of his great power. Delilah realizes that Samson’s strength comes from his long locks, so she cuts Samson’s hair and he is later captured by the Philistines. Delilah is an ultimate femme fatale in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Hedy Lamarr shines through her role as the seductress of Samson.

Hedy Lamarr as Delilah

Hedy Lamarr as Delilah

Hedy Lamarr as Femme Fatale: Samson and Delilah Scene
Although Samson and Delilah‘s success clearly marked the heights of Lamarr’s stardom, her debut film Ecstasy surpassed all of her films in terms of its notoriety. Here, she plays a young woman named Eva who marries a rich older man who is unable to sexually gratify her lust. Eva leaves her husband and meets a younger man named Adam on a horse ranch. Adam first sees his Eva naked, and she subsequently beats him and slaps his face, only stimulating the young man more. Later in the film, there is a very graphic sex scene (for the 1930s) which is deemed one of the first orgasms ever to be seen in mainstream media. The filmmakers concentrate on Lamarr’s facial expressions as her Adam performs oral sex on her. Because of Lamarr’s sexual expressions, this film was censored and banned in various countries following its release.
Lamarr\’s Sex Scene in Ecstasy
Lamarr as Eva in Ecstasy

Lamarr as Eva in Ecstasy

ELIZABETH TAYLOR (1932-)
“Her dark beauty, her voluptuous figure, her emotional intensity, and her scandalous affairs and marriages [eight and counting] made her a worldwide star by the age of twenty-five” (Mainon and Ursini 203)

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most famous and notable American stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age and her immense popularity allowed her to choose her own roles, which often included the persona of the femme fatale. Taylor’s femme fatale films include A Place in the Sun (1951), Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Cleopatra (1963), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

One of her most famous films, Cleopatra, illustrates her great ability to personify a solidified historical femme fatale and “political animal” (Mainon and Ursini 211). Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, conquered two of the most powerful men of the Western world: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She bore a son to Caesar and three children to Antony. She famously aligned with Antony to contest Julius Caesar’s named heir. After Antony’s suicide after the loss of his final battle, Cleopatra followed suit through the poisonous bite of an asp. Cleopatra has been taken up through popular culture and regaled for her beauty, but more for her manipulation and wit in the field of love. Taylor shines in the role of Cleopatra and the propaganda for this film mostly centered on her role as seductress.
Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra Trailer, Focusing on Her Role as Femme Fatale

Taylor as Cleopatra

Taylor as Cleopatra

ANGELINA JOLIE (A Modern Day Femme Fatale, 1975- )

“From wild, bisexual bad girl through sexually charged warrior woman to commanding mother figure, Jolie has left her strong imprint on the new millennium femme fatale” (Mainon and Ursini 315)

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie is a famous American actress who has received one academy award and three Golden Globe Awards. Unlike her thriving career, her personal life has been very tumultuous and somewhat indicative of her status as a modern day femme fatale. Jolie has married three different men (two of which ended rather suddenly by her own doing) and has reported that she had sexual relationships with at least one woman. Jolie’ s romantic relationships often have elements of the macabre, in that in her first wedding she wrote the groom’s name in her blood on her clothing and in her second relationship to Billy Bob Thornton, she wore a vial of his blood on a chain daily. However, Jolie has received the most notoriety for forming a relationship with a married man, Brad Pitt. This relationship has been the source of much discussion in magazines and tabloids, and “Brangelina” became the “It” term for quite some time. Of similar importance to Jolie’s character as a femme fatale is her notorious tattooed body. Angelina Jolie has over ten known tattoos, which have to be concealed through make-up for her various films.

Jolie's Tattoos

Jolie's Tattoos

Jolie has performed the role of the femme fatale in various films including Foxfire (1996), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Gia (1998), Original Sin (2001), Alexander (2004), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), and Beowulf (2007). Two of her films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Original Sin require further exploration because of the first’s popularity and the second’s heavy reliance on the figure of the femme fatale for its plot.

Jolie as Dominatrix and Killer in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Jolie as Femme Fatale in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Jolie as Femme Fatale in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jolie and Brad Pitt play a middle-class couple and are both secret agents without the partner’s knowledge. The plot comes to full force when this dull couple facade shatters when each agent is assigned to kill the other. When they realize who their targets are, Jolie and Pitt’s characters become the passionate couple they once were in the early years of their marriage. Jolie best typifies her role as a femme fatale figure in this film when she dresses up in the outfit of a dominatrix for a “client” who she scolds and subsequently kills by snapping his neck.

Trailer for Original Sin

Advertisement for Original Sin

Advertisement for Original Sin

Jolie plays the character of Julia/Bonnie in Original Sin and acts as a sexually charged, cigar smoking femme fatale who revels in her manipulation of men. Throughout the film, she acts as a dominatrix figure to one lover and a sadomasochist to another, where she practices blood-drinking, cutting, and rough sexual encounters. In the film, Jolie’ Bonnie takes the place of a murdered mail order bride named Julia and dupes Antonio Banderas’ character Luis into falling in love with her. Bonnie then takes Luis’ money and returns to her previous life of vice and crime. Luis tracks his wife down, and instead of shooting her as he intended, he declares his unconditional love for Bonnie in an angst ridden way. Their relationship epitomizes that of the relationship between a femme fatale and her lover.

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