Dir: Brian De Palma. Fr-US 2002. 110mins.

With its chances and coincidences, doubles, dream sequences and alternative endings, Femme Fatale is an enigmatic European art-movie lightly disguised as a Hollywood genre thriller. There is certainly enough eye-popping sex and spectacle to steer it to decent box-office returns. In France it opened on a public holiday to 69,330 admissions ($332,784) from 304 screens to top the box office. But Brian De Palma's formal brilliance is harnessed to a blatantly over-the-top storyline which, combined with the film's emotional froideur, will inhibit mainstream commercial prospects. However, buffs will find it an intriguing addition to the director's canon and it should prosper long term on video and DVD.

The latest in a long line of American film-makers to decamp to Europe, where he has lived for the past two years, De Palma presented himself in a recent interview with Le Monde as a victim of the system. Thanks to a series of flops - the last being 2000's Mission To Mars - he is, he said, now regarded in Hollywood as the biggest figure of fun since Jerry Lewis. In Paris, by contrast, he basks in the status of an auteur-in-exile, with reverential reviews accompanying this latest release. Meanwhile a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in February broke box-office records. The film, partly set at last year's Cannes Film Festival (with cameos from Gilles Jacob, Sandrine Bonnaire and Regis Wargnier), is also scheduled for a special screening on Croisette on May 25.

The title's iconic meaning is announced in the opening moments, an excerpt from Double Indemnity watched on television by a near-naked woman, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). A foxy bisexual broad planning a daring heist at Cannes' closing ceremony, Laure lures her prey, a starlet wearing nothing from the waist up but a golden serpent studded with diamonds, into the ladies' room. There, while seducing her inside a translucent cubicle, she stealthily removes the jewellery, coil by coil.

Cheating her accomplices out of their share of the loot, Laure absconds to Paris. Here, she meets a woman who looks uncannily like her and witnesses her suicide before swiping her passport. In this new guise, Laure marries an American diplomat (Peter Coyote), concealing her murky past. When Antonio Banderas's paparazzo blows her cover, he becomes a pawn in her plan to fake her own disappearance.

Absurd almost to the point of abstraction, the story is a puzzle which, like the photo-collage in Banderas's apartment, only falls into place in the very last shot, after a serpent's tail ending replays events as they would have happened if Laure's double had not died.

Required to disrobe at every opportunity, Romijn-Stamos, a model-turned-actress whose main previous credit was X-Men, parades through a series of lacy underwear and sex scenes, including a demeaning striptease in a biker bar. It's enough to make one wish for the Hays Code, which forced the great femmes fatales of the 1940s to work their black magic entirely by innuendo and suggestion. Banderas, meanwhile, plays his character for laughs, whether he's posing as a blind man in front of the US Embassy in order to steal his shots or passing for gay in order to infiltrate Laure's hotel bedroom. The lack of chemistry between them is one of the film's chief liabilities.

De Palma's baroque editing and trademark prowling camera creating a continual sense of foreboding over a series of often wordless set pieces. Ryuichi Sakamoto's elegant, if slightly overused score focuses on pastiche, from his Bolero in the manner of Ravel which accompanies the heist sequence and closing credits to the yearning Bernard Herrmanesque strings which course through the rest of the movie. All other technical credits are top-notch.

Prod co: Quinta Communications
Fr dist:
Int'l sales:
Exec prod:
Mark Lombardo
Tarak Ben Ammar, Marina Gefter
De Palma
Dop: Thierry Arbogast
Prod des: Anne Pritchard
Bill Pankow
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Main cast:
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute, Rie Rasmussen