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Terror, Cyphers, and Femme Fatales: The 21st-Century Cinema of Brian De Palma

Written by on August 29, 2013 

Looking back, the first decade of the 21st century was an unusually disparate time for ’70s movie brats. While Steven Spielberg remained a box office titan, several films produced in the 2000s were becoming darker and, seemingly, less commercial even as they bore many traits of his earlier entertainments. (Massive box office intake included.) Martin Scorsese utilized the luxuries of his profile to a somewhat opposing effect: although passion projects such as Gangs of New York and The Aviator would rightly be considered “grown-up” pictures, both those and a looser, more immediately appealing entry, The Departed, deviated from the seething darkness that had so defined much of his earlier oeuvre; even Bringing Out the Dead, released only in 1999, would be a shock had it opened less than ten years later. Too much could be said about George Lucas to fit in one place, the man at once wildly independent and massively, all-consumingly corporate, to questionable artistic (if not technological) lengths. Francis Ford Coppola made wine and released one greatly underseen, greatly underappreciated film.

And, then, there was Brian De Palma. The less commercial, far more lurid brother in arms of the noted New Hollywood figures fared most poorly of all during the era — Coppola, for as inactive as he may have been, at least produced a number of projects; several weren’t even made by his children! — releasing a string of financial and critical failures deemed by many the clear sign of a once-gifted mimic in decline. While it’d be uncharacteristic to allege that such opinions are “wrong” — chalk that up to the ever-malleable nature of an individual man or woman’s reaction to art, etc. — it’s nevertheless difficult to see such treatment bestowed upon a series of movies that, though (in most cases) far from perfect, can be counted as among some of the most significant films he’s ever made by virtue of their largely uncompromising place in a greater canon.

With the theatrical release of his new film, Passion, right around the corner, we’ve decided to look at his post-2000s output — an era significant for how it shows De Palma taking some (hopefully not all) final gasps with the studio system before, in a strangely full-circle career arc, resorting to independent means.

Mission to Mars (2000)

The film introduces itself quickly and slyly: a cloud-strewn blue sky offers the space for a propelled rocket, promptly before bursting into multiple pieces that rain down on a group of cheering kids. It’s not a disaster, but the illusion of one played out on an claustrophobically small, aesthetically superficial scale. It’s also how Brian De Palma keys us into Mission to Mars, one of the 21st century’s first tentpole releases and, still to this date, among the more willingly off-putting.

Clearly disinterested in the spectacle that audiences crave so strongly in their Disney blockbusters, De Palma, unraveling a slow-burn space mystery, reveals himself to be more deeply concerned with the technology that could’ve allowed such a film to be made in the first place. What can we do with these new tools? Why should they even be used? Mars is strangely woozy for a modern film concerning space exploration, all the more uncharacteristic in its elegant long takes and genuine stabs at character work — Tim Robbins’ death scene could very well be the most affecting found in any De Palma picture — but, sadly, the hypnotic pace can be dislodged by somewhat perfunctory elaborate CG displays. No matter how impressive its sand monster attack may be in concept and execution — and, I think, for the fact that he ever directed a sand monster attack — “showstopper cinema” doesn’t feel to be of a piece with what De Palma intends to make.

Its own grisly outcome would’ve fit so many times prior — the content itself, not a monster made out of Mars pebbles; forgive me for seeming too fascinated with its existence — but this doesn’t entirely work when Mission to Mars is one of the very, very few of his movies we can say has a happy ending. And, yet, while De Palma can feel a bit lost in this terrain — some effects, more often than not those employed to “simpler” degree, still hold up respectably; others are jarringly of their time — it’s fun to see the man, already decades into a career, go where he never had (and, likely, never will) go again.

Femme Fatale (2002)

As much a Rosetta Stone to the De Palma canon as Raising Cain or Body Double, this 2002 thriller is all the more remarkable for, somehow, being the most accessible title listed herein. Femme Fatale is not merely a step back from the esoteric genre trappings of Mission to Mars — nor just a dial back from the seething anger of the two pictures which would follow — but a deliriously fun dive into narrative by way of character manipulation: its opening image shows a television broadcasting Double Indemnity, a tip of the hat that, in addition to bestowing as much necessary credit to Billy Wilder as Brian De Palma, informs the conceit-driven narrative more succinctly than any method most filmmakers could ever dream of.

Following a career-best, Cannes-set heist sequence, the picture quickly spins a dream narrative for which, upon release, it had been chided, Fatale‘s harshest critics claiming a sloppy, confusing logic was all the director had up his sleeve. It’s an altogether odd complaint when one gives the picture some time to sink in: ever the visual filmmaker, De Palma returned to Raising Cain’s wink-at-the-camera motif of clocks, here — along with water, the second immediately recognizable patch of a larger fabric — a delineation of frozen time and scrambled thought. It’s a bit obvious, yes, but more effectively clean than nearly any dream mechanics one might conjure.

Said climax is, no less, another uplifting final note for its helmer, as the Rebecca Romijn character finally discovers agency, mining personal wisdom in ways that the woman on the TV could never managed. By casting off a hunky photographer (Antonio Banderas) as if we had not, in fact, spent more than an hour in his company, Femme Fatale‘s hero is given the new lease on life so many of De Palma’s sirens were never lucky enough to see. Beautiful.

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