What is a Femme Fatale? Meaning & Examples from Film

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In cinema, the femme fatale is a character type known for being mysterious, seductive, and often dangerous. These women use their charm and allure to manipulate others, typically leading men into compromising, perilous situations. Popularized in the 1940s and 1950s film noir genre, the femme fatale embodies betrayal and power dynamics themes, often reflecting societal anxieties about gender and autonomy.

The term “femme fatale” is French for “fatal woman” or “deadly woman.” The femme fatale is typically portrayed as a figure both alluring and mysterious, wielding sexual power that ultimately leads to the downfall of the men around her.

Origin

Eve and the apple of Eden

The femme fatale archetype has ancient roots and can be traced back to various mythologies and folklore.

Historical figures and mythological characters such as Eve from the Bible and Lilith from Jewish mythology are considered early examples. They embody traits of manipulation and danger associated with the femme fatale archetype.

Likewise, characters such as the enchantresses Circe and Medea represent the femme fatale in Greek mythology, using their powers to manipulate and exact revenge on male protagonists.

A femme fatale is sometimes called a vamp or maneater and loosely shares traits with the succubus, the enchantress, and female witches.

Femme Fatales in Early Cinema

Femme fatale film noir black and white

In early cinema, the femme fatale was prominently featured in the film noir genre of the 1940s and 1950s. These films typically portrayed the femme fatale as a seductive, manipulative woman who uses her sexuality to control men.

The femme fatales in these films, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), are often portrayed as manipulative and self-serving, using their charm and attractiveness to achieve their often nefarious ends.

Evolution in Modern Cinema

As societal norms and gender roles have evolved, so has the portrayal of the femme fatale. In contemporary media, the character often appears in more empowered roles, sometimes flipping the traditional power dynamics to offer commentary on feminism and gender equality.

Modern femme fatales may still use their allure as a form of power, but they are often portrayed as more complex characters whose motivations extend beyond simply ensnaring men.

Neo-noir movies such as Basic Instinct (1992) and Gone Girl (2014) present modern iterations of the femme fatale. In these films, characters like Catherine Tramell and Amy Dunne, respectively, embody a new type of femme fatale who is not only dangerous and manipulative but also intelligent, independent, and capable of complex psychological tactics.

These modern portrayals often challenge traditional gender stereotypes and invite us to empathize with or understand the femme fatale’s perspective, even if they do not condone her actions.

Cultural Impact and Criticism

femme fatale film neo noir

The femme fatale archetype has had a significant influence on the portrayal of women in media and has been a subject of much feminist critique.

Critics argue that the femme fatale upholds damaging stereotypes about women, particularly the notion that female sexuality is dangerous or morally corrupting.

I believe the femme fatale is a figure of empowerment and sexual agency. She asserts her autonomy and uses her intelligence and sexuality to navigate a world dominated by male power structures.

Summing Up

The femme fatale remains a compelling archetype in film. She embodies the human fascination with and fear of powerful and sexy women.

Whether viewed as a villain or a misunderstood anti-hero, the femme fatale continues to captivate us and offers a great character to include in a screenplay for exploring themes of desire, betrayal, and moral ambiguity.

Up Next: Famous Femme Fatales in Cinema History.

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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