Red Sparrow Reminds Us How Far The Femme Fatale Has Come

She’s seductive. She shirks conventional morality. She probably smokes long cigarettes. Say the phrase “femme fatale,” and you can recite the ingredients back to me by heart. The quintessential image of the femme fatale, or dangerous woman, was cemented in 1940s noir film. But the archetype of a woman who uses her seductive powers – the woman who is aware enough of her gender role to use it to gain power (and occasionally ruin men’s lives) — is an old one. Look at Delilah, Cleopatra, Salome.
Why did femmes fatales feature so heavily in film in the '40s? A classic academic reading of the femme fatale resurgence states that femmes fatales were a response to women entering the public sphere in unprecedented numbers in the '40s. Men created characters that embodied their anxieties about these newly empowered women. But it’s not that simple, and it shouldn't be that pessimistic. Film noir gave women a space to exist beyond the typical bounds of womanhood. A woman could be sexual, she could be a villain, she could escape from confining marriages — she could be other than what gender prescriptions laid out for her.
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The archetype of the femme fatale has proven to be fluid, and able to adapt to different eras. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the femme fatale character in movies — and why the recent uptick of movies featuring violent leading likes, like Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, is actually the mark of evolution.
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Vampire woman (Theda Bara) in A Fool There Was (1915)

The central figure in the silent film A Fool There Was is the femme fatale, perhaps, in its simplest conception. When John Schulyer (Edward Jose) leaves for a diplomatic mission to England, he thinks he knows who he is — a lawyer, a diplomat, a family man. Then he meets the “vampire woman,” played by Bara, on the ship over. Her seductive qualities awaken something in him. Something powerful. He abandons his old life, and completely succumbs to her.

As it turns out, John is only one in a string of victims. Bara’s “hobby,” if you could call it that, is seducing men and then discarding them after she gets bored – typically ruining their lives in the process. What a lark! Bara’s femme fatale encapsulates the essence of the dangerous woman, who recognizes the pliability of men; you can find a drop of Bara’s character in every other woman on this list.
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Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) in Baby Face (1934)

Lily Powers is unlike any other character created in cinema, before or after. She’s a poor woman who, after being introduced to Nietzsche, decides to use his philosophies to power her social climbing. Essentially: "You have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you," as Lily's older friend, a Nietzche-reading cobbler, tells her. Lily moves to New York and gets a job at a bank. She uses what she has to climb her way to the top — and what she has is her sex appeal and femininity. Men, for Lily, are tools she can use to extract success and financial independence. Baby Face actually lets Lily get away with it. She isn’t punished.

If Baby Face seems remarkably frank in its discussion of sex and a woman’s sexuality, it’s because this movie was created right before the passage of the Hays Code, which severely limited the subject matter permitted in Hollywood movies. The code was overturned in 1968, but until then, a character as sexually liberated as Lily couldn’t exist.
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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is an example of a classic femme fatale plot trope: Wives scheming to murder their husbands.

In the movie, Phyllis enlists the help of an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to kill her husband. He carries the murder out, thinking that they’re going to cash in the insurance policy, and to be together after. Walter is entranced by Phyllis' seeming imperviousness to guilt: "How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’ he says of her. Little does he know that Phyllis has been playing him all along. When Walter figures it out, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Double Indemnity’s ending shows that though femme fatales can exert some power over men, they’re still in constant danger of violence.
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Katherine ‘Kitty’ March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street (1945)

For the rest of her life, Kitty March will be remembered as an incredible artist. No one needs to know that she isn’t actually the artist behind the paintings, right? In this movie, an aspiring painter named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) runs into Kitty in the street just as she’s being attacked by a man. Christopher has no idea — and how could he? — that this is just an act, and that the man is Kitty’s boyfriend.

Kitty orchestrates an elaborate scheme, and eventually frames Chris for murder. She is credited for the paintings and gets to stick with her boyfriend. She has her cake and eats it too. In Scarlet Street, Kitty isn’t quite an independent femme fatale. Rather, she’s the feminine arm of a crime duo. Scarlet Street frames femininity as a weapon.
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Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in The Killers (1946)

You have to admire Kitty’s efficiency. In The Killers, a movie of about a dozen double crosses and plot twists, Kitty’s seduction methods remain quite simple. She looks at a guy, and she has ‘em. It only takes a few seconds for Andreson (Burt Lancaster) to ditch his date and go after Kitty. From there, Kitty manipulates Anderson into carrying out crimes for her. Then, she steals his money and has him killed. Kitty, like Phyllis in Double Indemnity, ends up paying for her wiliness.
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Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) in Body Heat (1981)

Noir made a resurgence in the 1980s, bringing with it a new surge of women willing to go to great lengths to get what they want. At first read, the plot sounds like the classic noir: Matty Walker wants to kill her husband, and she convinces her lover to help her carry out the murder.

Matty Walker is far more subtle in her ministrations than, say, Phyllis in Double Indemnity. In one famous scene, she doesn’t say anything to Ned (William Hurt) — and yet he does exactly what she had wanted. But like Phyllis, Matty wants to better her circumstances and gain a sense of freedom that's not possible in her marriage.
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Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction (1987)

The femme fatale archetype underwent a radical change in the ‘80s. In the past, femme fatales had been fixated on achieving financial independence, or some freedom from the confinements of their role. But in the ‘80s, women had jobs. They could be more independent. So the nature of the archetype expanded.

Take Alex Forrest. She’s a successful editor, and easily charms Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas). She wants — like, really wants — to continue seeing Dan after their brief affair. She becomes an immediate threat to his life. She’s a delusional stalker, a madwoman, a hungry woman. Whereas earlier femme fatales remained composed, Alex unravels. She’s the id.
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Jessica Rabbit (Betsy Brantley) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

By 1988, the qualities that defined the femme fatale archetype had solidified into a few important traits: A sultry voice, voluptuousness, sex appeal. Since Jessica Rabbit is still a cartoon, though, the effect is quite funny — men fawn over her animated body the same way they fawn over Kitty in The Killers.

Even though Jessica is created in the image of famous femme fatale antagonists, Jessica refuses to be turned into a villain. “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” she says, in one of her most famous lines. The movie is effectively saying not to judge a woman by her cover.
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Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct (1992)

Unlike Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest, who unravels when things don’t go her way, Catherine Tramell has a calculated hold on the men in her life. She has a very clear vision of what she wants to do to them, and what she wants to do involves ice picks. Catherine is extremely manipulative; even though many people suspect her of murder, she’s able to slide out from under those suspicions.

Catherine is a femme fatale who maintains her power throughout the movie. She makes men writhe, then defeats them — and in the end, she gets away with it.
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Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995)

In Body Heat and Double Indemnity, femme fatales seduced men and then convinced them to murder their husbands. To Die For is another, more extreme take on the trope. Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) is a newscaster who thirsts, above all, for fame. She’d do anything for it, including seducing a group of high-school boys to kill her husband, who’s standing in the way of her and her career.

The women in the noir movies wanted an insurance payout; Suzanne, while completely delusional, lusts after a more “modern” goal.” A career.
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Ann (Sanaa Lathan) in Out of Time (2003)

Obviously the highlight of Out of Time is the raw chemistry between Ann and Matt (Denzel Washington), but the movie also features a classic portrayal of the femme fatale. As you should know by now, the femme fatale is always three steps ahead of the man she's lured into her web. Ann and Matt are having a torrid affair, and then she confesses that she's dying of cancer. Then, Ann's house burns town, making it seem like she and her husband have died — and Matt seems like the prime suspect.
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Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

In many of these movies, a woman uses her sex appeal to carry out violence. These women bring danger into other people's lives. Jennifer’s Body plays with these themes, but in a gory romp. In the movie, Jennifer is a high-schooler possessed by a succubus whose sole goal is attacking teenage boys. Like an angler fish, Jennifer lures her classmates in with her sexuality, and then — well, you know. Kills them.

Jennifer is an outright villain, sure. But her character is a distillation of a primary quality of the femme fatale, to a comic degree. Reeling men in is almost too simple.
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Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina (2014)

This is how you know you’re entering the modern era: Femme fatales are robots. As Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) wonder whether or not Ava has independent thought, she’s plotting her escape. Ava’s acutely observant robot mind recognizes that Caleb is attracted to her, and takes advantage of his weakness. Not only does Ava come out victorious – she’s immune to the other dangers that femme fatales find themselves in, as human beings. She cannot be emotionally manipulated.
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Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde rings in a new era of femme fatale, one that cinema is still exploring. Lorraine is a spy in the Cold War era, and she’s a femme fatale in the sense that she’s outright dangerous. She wields a gun. She beats up men, and she gets beat up. Lorraine doesn’t mask her threat beneath feminine wiles; she’s just dangerous. Interestingly, Lorraine is also uninterested in men, sexually. Her lover in the movie is a woman.
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Mary (Taraji P. Henson) in Proud Mary (2017)

Proud Mary and Atomic Blonde are two examples of the recent trend of violent women characters. Mary takes the term “femme fatale” literally — she's a professional hitwoman. Her sexuality is an afterthought. Her primary trait is dangerous. Mary is the latest in a string of gun-toting femme fatales who pose immediate, and obvious threats to men, or anyone who gets in their way.
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The women of The Beguiled (2017)

We've gone from femme fatale to femmes fatales. In The Beguiled, a straggling Union soldier, McBurney (Colin Farrell), takes refuge in an all-girls school in Virginia. The handsome guest immediately begins to brew competition and jealousy among the women. When she suspects McBurney has acquired too much power over the women in the school, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman) decides to take steps that many would call immoral — and she enlists the help of her wards.
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Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) in Red Sparrow (2018)

Dominika Egorova is in a much different situation than may of the other femmes fatales on this list. Other women used their bodies as tools for manipulation, sure — but it was for their own gain. They wanted to murder their husbands for their insurance money, or to further their careers.

Dominika, on the other hand, is forced to used her sexuality to gather information for the Russian government. She's trained to use a combination of brains and sex appeal to lure unsuspecting Americans in, and extract intelligence secrets from their pliable minds.

Being a femme fatale in Red Sparrow is a punishment. Her sexuality is a weapon — but not one that she's using for her own gain. Until, of course, she starts getting into the games of double-crossing, and using what she's learned as a means to her own freedom.
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