Femme Fatale
dir. Brian De Palma
Opens Fri Nov 8 at various theaters.

There are De Palma movies and then there are De Palma movies. I'm thrilled to report that Femme Fatale, his latest (and one of his greatest), lands in the italicized camp.

In the first category, we find De Palma's works for hire, films whose producers want to bus in a little of his dark wizardry--sometimes with exhilarating results (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), sometimes not so much (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars). Though he usually finds something interesting to add to these projects, he also seems distracted when slumming for the studios; like he's just biding time between his real movies.

In that sense, Femme Fatale couldn't be much more real, which means it also couldn't be much more fake, and that's why it couldn't be much better. It's got everything a proper De Palma movie should have: sex, cameras, surveillance, manipulation, mistaken identity, doubles, lesbians, impalement, elaborate split-screen action, withering humor, and more self-awareness than a narcissists' convention.

It's also got Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, sinking her perfect teeth into one of the smartest, funniest alpha-bitch roles created for an actress in a long while.

The film's opening shot, a TV screen with Romijn-Stamos' naked body reflected over a scene from Double Indemnity, immediately lets us know where we are, in several senses. It's just like De Palma to make a cinematic comparison so literal--actress superimposed upon actress--that you can't help but smile knowingly. But the shot is a crafty way of setting the scene (pull back to reveal French subtitles on the TV), as well as a declaration of purpose. The message is clear: Watch closely--maestro at work.

The film leaps from there into one trademark set-piece after another. The first is a jewel heist that involves infrared goggles, bathroom sex, the Cannes Film Festival, laser beams, and a cat, and also introduces us to Laure (Romijn-Stamos)--a thief who double-crosses her partners and makes off with the booty (in several senses). And then we meet the photographer (Antonio Banderas), the software millionaire (Peter Coyote), and a dozen more plot contrivances that De Palma fuses together into a helix of complication and misinformation that doesn't unravel until the second or third ending.

Like its director, Femme Fatale is all about having it both ways. It's violent but funny, sexual but nervous, and despite an artful reliance on the hoariest clichés known to the cinema, it is wildly inspired, original, and alive.