With "Femme Fatale," Brian De Palma has oddly delivered his personal best in years while still making one of the worst movies of 2002.
The maddening thing about this crime thriller starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Antonio Banderas is the tremendous filmmaking finesse De Palma applies to a laughably incoherent yarn.
The clever stunts, velvety images and brooding film-noir atmosphere De Palma concocts make "Femme Fatale" something of a guilty pleasure. There's almost a silent-movie quality to "Femme Fatale," with long stretches of wordless action, so it's possible to sit and watch the pretty pictures roll by as long as you don't mind plot inconsistencies and baffling leaps that defy even the film's own hazy internal logic.
The result is better entertainment than the more conventionally plotted bombast that's preoccupied De Palma for the last decade or so, including "Mission: Impossible," "Snake Eyes" and "Mission to Mars."
But with De Palma serving as his own screenwriter for the first time since 1992's "Raising Cain," "Femme Fatale" presents a consummate film tradesman applying his big bag of tricks in service of an infantile story.
The film opens with an eerie blend of reality and fiction at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival as Laure Ash (Romijn-Stamos) and some nasty associates carry out the daring theft of a diamond halter worn by the trophy date of director Regis Wargnier to a screening of his "East-West." (While that movie did not actually play at Cannes that year, the sequence otherwise borders on documentary-style authenticity, from the celebrity cameos on the red carpet to the opening jingle and festival logo that preceded the films.)
Laure betrays her allies, making off with the jewels and hiding out in Paris from her vengeful cohorts. Seedy photographer Nicolas (Banderas) snaps a picture of the disguised Laure, beginning what De Palma intends as an exploration of intertwining destinies but which amounts to a blathering burlesque of themes handled with great canniness in Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run."
A farcical series of fluke occurrences puts Laure in possession of a new identity and a plane ticket to America. The story jumps ahead seven years as Laure returns to Paris as wife of the U.S. ambassador (Peter Coyote), with Nicolas assigned to snap pictures of the press-shy envoy's wife and her old associates still in bitter pursuit.
From here, De Palma piles on so much nonsense that befuddlement overwhelms the voyeuristic diversion of the movie's sensual images. Keeping an audience guessing is one thing, but even when action is unpredictable, it needs to feel like something more than cheap contrivance for the sake of the next gaudy celluloid doodle.
"Femme Fatale" should not hurt the formative acting career of Romijn-Stamos, who delivers credibly enough as the classic poison blonde of the genre. But Banderas could have done without a role where he's little more than passive patsy.
"Femme Fatale," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for strong sexuality, violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.