Angela Carter, the renowned British writer perhaps best known for her dark, feminist masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber, has an early short story that got so under my skin after a first reading that the mere thought of it continues to frighten me. “The Loves of Lady Purple” follows a professor who performs a marionette show which centers on the tragic tale of Lady Purple, who is an orphan, fiend, murderer of her own parents, prostitute and a curious mix of sex and death. The longer the professor performs, the more feeble the man becomes, yet his marionette slowly shows more lifelike attributes, her movements gaining a languid, human grace. The story ends with the marionette of Lady Purple coming to life and killing her maker.
“[W]hether she was renewed or newly born, returning to life or becoming alive, awakening from a dream or coalescing into the form of fantasy generated in her wooden skull by the mere repetition so many times of the same invariable actions, the brain beneath the reviving hair contained only the scantiest notion of the possibilities now open to it,” Carter writes near the very end. It seems she can only be what he made her.
The story reminds me of the ways the femme fatale has evolved from the time she first sauntered onto the screen in the 1940s. If you look closely, there’s a clean line delineating the femme fatale of classic Hollywood’s studio system with how she appears afterwards. There’s a sort of bitterness that takes form in the archetype; she’s more brazen, and which was all too rare previously, she often prevails over her circumstances. As Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino is like the shock of hearing a gunshot in the dead of night. She embodies, more than any other character, the ethos of the modern femme fatale. The film kicks off with Bridget stealing $700,000 from soon-to-be-doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) — money that he gained from a drug deal in hopes of paying off the loan shark he owes. Moments before this happens, he slaps Bridget. But this bit of violence feels incidental to the decisions that follow. After all, you don’t just wake up one morning and decide to screw over the man sleeping next to you. Bridget holes up in a small town near Buffalo (waiting for a divorce to go through so she can spend the money), taking on the name Wendy Kroy, getting a job and becoming entangled with the far simpler, Mike Swale (Peter Berg).
The only reason she seems to do anything is because she feels like it. Bridget is fueled by pure selfish need. This isn’t uncommon for the femme fatale. But in re-watching the film, I wondered why I could love the femme fatale women like Barbara Stanwyck played (with Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity a clear precursor to Bridget in The Last Seduction) but find the modern femme fatale a rough sketch of what men think female wish fulfillment looks like. On the surface, there isn’t much of a difference between the femme fatales then and now, save for the fact that the sex and violence of the character isn’t reined in by the Production Code. Bridget fakes abuse, rape and pretty much uses every tool MRAs fear women secretly think of doing. Not uncommon in noir. The men are idiotic, falling in love with women who would gladly set them on fire to save themselves. Definitely a typical dynamic in the genre. The Letter, the 1940 William Wyler film, is predicated upon Bette Davis’ married character pretending she was sexually assaulted by the man she kills in the stark, entrancing opening. In reality, he was her lover and decided he wanted to leave her for someone else. But there’s a sense of nervous energy to Davis that lends the character humanity.
Bridget is a thrill to watch thanks to Fiorentino’s swagger. She’s smarter than anyone around her but she’s also hard to imagine as ever being a kid or someone you could pass down the street. There’s no emotional truth there — just the sheer fun of watching a woman having sex without any care for emotion, coldly discarding anyone who she can’t use, and carrying herself with a razor sharp bravado.
“Anyone check you for a heartbeat lately?,” a lawyer acquaintance says to Bridget over the phone. The madness of the femme fatale during the 1940s and 1950s was that she was boxed in by a culture that gave her little power and was forced to find inventive ways to find autonomy. The madness of the femme fatale in modern noir is that even though she has more freedom, even the autonomy her cinematic mothers yearned for, she isn’t satisfied. She destroys people because it seems the men who have fashioned the character can’t think of deeper reasons for her actions beyond lurid fun and money.
One of the striking moments comes early on when Mike says they should have sex because… he’s particularly endowed. So, Bridget asks to see it. He thinks she’s kidding. She’s not. When he sits down, she checks for herself. It’s a moment of bald lust in a way we see in a lot of modern femme fatales, Catherine Trammel from Basic Instinct comes to mind. But it’s something that’s hard to imagine a woman doing, and not because we aren’t fueled by pure physical desire. It comes across like a parody of female desire that only a man would find sexy. I like watching Bridget thanks to Fiorentino’s performance, which has a sort of detached irony that means everything glides off of her, even the fear that starts to unravel as Clay gets close to finding her and his money. Bridget may be able to get the life she wants by framing Mike after she kills Clay for murder and rape, but she isn’t ever able to feel like a real person. But maybe that’s the point. Modern noir isn’t so much interested in who these women are, but what they do.
It’s interesting to imagine how the archetype could be when written and directed by a woman. In literature, there have been great recent works by noir writers like Christa Faust and Megan Abbott that upend our expectations of the femme fatale, giving her a cleverness, humanity and drive that films like The Last Seduction merely hint at. Cinema needs a similar revolution for modern noir. It’s possible to balance the visceral thrill of the archetype and give her some humanity. And to portray the particular madness that comes with being a modern woman through the femme fatale. I’m just not sure any director working in noir has realized how or even wants to.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.