What is a Femme Fatale Character in Film?

Femme fatale is a French phrase that translates to “fatal woman.“ It refers to a stock character who is fond of using her beauty and charm, often to deceive men into fulfilling her needs.

You may also know the femme fatale as the vamp, maneater, or a trickster. She may also be referred to as a Circe, a term that is inspired by Greek mythology. Circe was a goddess and enchantress who would bend people to her will using trickery, sorcery, seduction, and wit.

The femme fatale was especially commonplace in film noir, where she would be the hero’s downfall, being the source of distress and trouble. The femme fatale is a devious character who successfully tempts or seduces the protagonist for her gain.

She was typically the antagonist in the 20th-century crime films, or at least second in command or the contagonist. Either way, the femme fatale was famous for luring men into traps and being responsible for the major plot conflicts. She was usually a very attractive woman, who was smart enough to pull the wool over the eyes of an intelligent hero.

The femme fatale was an attempt by filmmakers to give female characters more roles and depth in films. No longer were they only objects to be seen or trophy wives, but female characters with a considerable influence over the plot.

During the world wars, women were encouraged to take up more jobs, as the war siphoned a huge amount of manpower. After the wars, the patriarchal order of society in America was in disarray. Returning men now wanted the jobs that previously belonged to them, looking to put women back into the submissive caregiver roles.

The femme fatale become a demonization of the independent, working-class woman in early 19th century America. It was a role that painted women in a bad light, seeking to persuade the female labor force to give up its share of employment. Consequently, she was often associated with ill traits like dishonesty and adultery.

In essence, though, the femme fatale is a character whose origins go way back before the idea of film was ever born. She is a popular figure across many cultures, and even in religion. In Christianity, Adam, the first man that God creates, was given a wife named Lilith. 

She was opinionative and argued for equality, and she was thrown out of the garden of Eden for her perceived resistance. Other popular biblical examples include Salome, Jezebel, and Delilah.

From ancient Greece, women like Messalina and Cleopatra were viewed as the embodiment of the femme fatale. However, the actual term itself only first surfaced somewhere in the 19th century in popular works of French literature. It soon caught on and became popular beyond literature, and remains an archetype even in modern films.

So how do you pinpoint the femme fatale in movies?

We tackle this and more as we take a look at the blueprint of the stereotypical femme fatale in film:

Characteristics of a femme fatale character 

Selfish and manipulative 

The film noir era made famous the malicious femme fatale archetype, a mold that has persisted in current cinema. Primarily, the femme fatale is often painted as selfish and manipulative. Her primary goal is personal reward, and there was little to no motivation for anything else.

As a creature of habit, she does not care for any of the men she uses. They are merely a means to achieving an end. She often gets into marriage or relationships purely for the monetary gain that can be found in them. With elaborate, and often illegal plans, she schemes her way into an inheritance or tricks the protagonist or villain into false accusations and distractions. In the meantime, she got her way or stole whatever treasure either party was squabbling over.

The femme fatale is also quite manipulative, which is also a testament to her wit and intelligence. More cunning than a fox, she entices unknowing subjects, typically the noir protagonist, with promises of love and affection. Once she has them at her fingertips, she controls them like pawns in a much larger game of chess.

She rarely does the heavy lifting herself, but would use others to commit crimes like theft or murder to her benefit. In the end, once the jig is up, the victims get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The real perpetrator goes scot-free for a while although she eventually pays for her crimes in some way.  

Independent and fearless 

The damsel-in-distress is a popular archetype in action thrillers. She is helpless and can barely do anything on her own, waiting on others to save her and the day. The femme fatale is the exact opposite. She does not fear her adversaries. In fact, she is often the one instilling fear in their hearts. This dangerous dame suggests murder without batting an eyelid, and she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty when push comes to shove.

While she isn’t known for her brawn, her smart mind more than made up for the shortcomings of physical strength. She hatches devious schemes and often gets the better of seemingly more powerful characters, amassing the reputation of a black window.

If you are unfamiliar with the spider, the females often kill and eat their mates, hence the name. Like the spider, she sends a shiver down the spine of those who know her true colors but maintains the appearance of a lovely flower to those who do not. Her victims meet their demise or downfall after falling for her charm and beauty, much the same way a bee is lured into a Venus flytrap.

Additionally, the femme fatale is an independent character that no one can tame. While she often feigns distress to draw sympathy and aid, she perfectly knows what she is doing. Her decisions are her own, and she gets into sticky situations because she knows how to get herself out. She is a stark contrast to the “ideal woman” she was paired with in the plot to offer a measure of goodness. 

Street smart and a fashion statement 

The femme fatale’s observational skills surpass those of the hardboiled detective she typically went up against and managed to deceive. People are like books to her, and she can read them without even trying. She knows what makes you tick, and uses this to work you like a puppet.

Her street skills saw her have connections in low places and she has a “guy” for every dark and dirty errand. She knows most of the shortcuts in life, but yet never loses her elegant and poised exterior.

What’s more, this conniving seductress makes waves with her fashion sense. Sure, you can’t afford to have your back turned toward a femme fatale, but you also can’t take your eyes off her. She is famous for her enchanting mascara, dramatic hair, and bold lipstick that smolders with passion. A cigarette occasionally lingers at the tip of her fingers and she can handle her liquor just as well. Her makeup says more than her words, and she is the center of attention and makes any room she goes into hers.

Traditionally, she has more in her drawer than just the good looks. She also dresses the part, often seductively, wielding her sexuality like a weapon. The femme fatale has the latest designer bags and wears her clothes right off the conveyor belt. She leads a luxurious life, her ravenous ambition gets her there, and she has an eye for everything nice and shiny. 

Examples of femme fatale characters in movies 

Veda Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945) 

Mildred Pierce is a landmark movie because it’s one of the first films of its time to pass the Bechdel test, with its female-centered plot.

The femme fatale is not the movie’s title character rather her daughter, Veda Pierce. There is no detective to prey on in this film noir, but Veda is undoubtedly the predator.

Veda Pierce is a social climber. She is ashamed of her mother’s humble job as a baker and stresses her out to get the decadent luxuries she desires. When Mildred is not able to afford everything her daughter craves, Veda marries an older and wealthier man for his power and money. She even fakes a pregnancy to get a handsome settlement during the divorce. 

Mildred, eager to bring her daughter home and reconcile their strained relationship, gets into a loveless marriage to increase her social standing. Veda is swayed, and she returns to live out her opulent fantasies in her father-in-law’s mansion.

Veda Pierce is the typical noir femme fatale who becomes the antagonist of the film. She kills her mother’s second husband after he refuses the offer to marry her after divorcing her mother. Veda then convinces her mother to cover up the murder and pin it on Wally, a suitor that had been eyeing her for some time now. The plan works until her mother confesses and Veda gets arrested.

Manipulative, conniving, and aggressively self-centered, Veda Pierce is one of the most famous femme fatales in cinema history. 

Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 

The femme fatale may have been a construct of the noir era, but her archetype didn’t end with the genre.

However, the modern seductress isn’t always all bad. She usually grows a conscience and often redeems herself, or dies trying, after realizing the consequences of her actions.

Batman’s love interest Selina Kyle is one of the femme fatales in the 2012 superhero flick. While she isn’t outrightly the film’s big bad, Kyle does lead the hero to his “dark night of the soul” moment. Selina dupes Batman into the villain’s trap, blinding and puppeteering him because of the soft spot he has for her. Batman is defeated and captured by the villain after Selina has him lower her guard.

However, there’s also a second and perhaps even more important femme fatale in the way of Miranda Tate. She plays the fool to get close to Bruce Wayne (Batman) and is the one pulling all the strings, with Bane only the front of her operation. Miranda feigns affection for Bruce, to get close to him and they even end up sleeping together. Secretly, she is acquiring information to bankrupt Bruce Wayne and find out his other weak spots.

In the end, she puts a knife in his back, so to speak, and quite literally too. Miranda is eventually foiled and she dies trying to blow up an entire city to avenge her father’s death. 

Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell (1992) 

Catherine Trammel is the psychopathic killer in the erotic neo-noir, Basic Instinct. You may remember her for the infamous leg-crossing scene in an overtly sexual movie about a femme fatale who perfectly fits the description. Catherine seduces victims to their deaths, which often occur after a romp in the sack. She is among the rare femme fatales to get away with her crimes.

While she does not need money or financial gain, Catherine deceives men with her sexuality to live out the depraved fantasies in her novel. The male characters around her feel emasculated by her charm and intelligence. She is a really smart crime novelist and always one step ahead of her victims and investigators.

Catherine writes about a character who murders her victims after sex as if keeping a memoir of her life. She kills her rock-star boyfriend and is the prime suspect, with detective Nick Curran, the film’s protagonist, trying to link her to the crime.

The pair ends up sharing a twisted relationship as professional boundaries are crossed. Catherine is good at covering up her tracks. While Curran is suspicious of her, he never once finds evidence to prove her guilt. The femme fatale keeps the hero blinded and misdirected, and she even gets away with her crimes in the end.

While we don’t actually know how the conclusion pans out because of the suspenseful ending, the ice pick under the bed hint that Nick Curran was about to be one more victim in her book.

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