A woman walks into your detective’s office. She might be wearing a hat or let her hair down. She lets her classy dress show off her legs as she sits down and lights a cigarette. She has an air of danger and mystery about her, so much so that, while you think you should stay away, you just can’t. She is a femme fatale, one of the most popular character types seen in 20th century fiction. But what is a femme fatale, exactly? We’ll be going over the history of this trope, how she came to be, and how she continues to endure.
What is a Femme Fatale Meaning
First, let's define femme fatale
Femme fatale is a French term that literally translates to “fatal female” or “lethal woman.” Before this name came into main usage, the term “vamp” was used for similar characters seen in earlier films of the 1910s and ‘20s. It came from “vampire” and stories where a woman would literally or figuratively suck the life out of her victims with the help of sexual seduction.
FEMME FATALE DEFINITION
What is a femme fatale?
A femme fatale is a character type that embodies beauty, mystery, seduction, and danger. Her role often involves entrapping a man into her web of deceit and ruining him in some way. Other times, she is working with the main villains and uses the hero for their evil needs. And sometimes, even when she plans to fool or hurt the hero, she is conflicted about her feelings and what she’s doing.
Femme Fatale Characteristics:
- Beautiful, seductive, and nothing but trouble
- Uses her sexuality to get what she wants
- Keeps things to herself, never reveals the whole truth
- Deceitful plans of her own or when working with others
- Ends up hurting the hero, causing his downfall, or realizing too late what she’s doing to the hero is wrong
Click the image to see the entire collection and you can even print it out for inspiration if you find yourself writing the next great film noir inspired villain.
Now, let's take a trip back to when these dangerous women first came to be.
Femme Fatale Characters
Classic femme fatale examples
We mentioned that dangerous women in cinema were nicknamed “vamps” in the '10s and ‘20s. The classic femme fatale archetype emerged during the days of hard boiled detective fiction in the ‘30s. This genre of literature was very influential to the character type and the film genre she would later flourish in.
That film genre would be film noir, and it’s where the classic femme fatale archetype was codified. In most ways, femme fatale in noir is where the trope lives on, as she is often seen as a vital (but not necessary) part of any noir story. The video below covers the general idea of a femme fatale in noir stories.
The woman seeks the assistance of our male protagonist, even if he suspects she’s bad news. It’s a classic situation as seen in some of the best film noirs of all-time, like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (both based on novels). Both films feature women who take advantage of our male protagonists with varying degrees of success.
While most films feature classy and enticing femmes, films like Detour almost seem to subvert this. In any case, the end result of the damsel making life worse for the hero is the same.
Here's a clip from Double Indemnity: our introduction to Phyllis Dietrichson. The spell she casts over Walter Neff begins here. The dialogue, the camera angles, the lighting, everything working here to present her as superior and him as inferior. Later, we will see just how far into her trap Neff will fall.
Part of the appeal of femme fatale characters was that women were not traditionally seen as mortally dangerous. Film noir came out around the time of WWII, so themes of cynicism, nihilism, and uncertainty were common.
A woman who had no interest in motherhood, who only cared about herself, and above all, could not be controlled, was equal parts alluring and frightening.
At the same time, femme fatales in movies could be complex. She might question her motives and wonder if she’s doing the right thing. It’s why some classic femmes end up regretting their actions, even if it’s too late.
It’s part of what has made her so enduring, even as times change and the world is no longer full of Sam Spades.
Femme Fatale Examples
Contemporary femme fatale characters
By the time of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the character was still showing up in noir-influenced movies (Blade Runner, Blue Velvet). However, erotic thrillers began to take hold, with many noir archetypes showing up here.
One of the most famous femme fatale examples would be Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) from Basic Instinct.
David Fincher’s The Game is another Neo-Noir that features a blonde femme fatale stringing poor Michael Douglas along for the ride of his life. The only other movie in his filmography to feature as many deceitful twists and turns is Gone Girl, which (arguably) also features a dangerous, manipulative woman.
In many ways, the traditional femme fatale no longer exists. If you’re making a throwback picture or a parody, then the classic femme is likely to show up. But these days, as was the case decades ago, you end up with different female characters with varying shades of “fatale.”
If your movie is set in the present, your femme fatale character type will either be easily recognizable or not so much. Her essence was born of a different time and place.
While this character type mostly lives on as part of a specific genre, her influence is still felt. For example, she allowed for women to be more than just housewives in cinema, with strong, alluring, villainous roles for their characters. So long as film noir continues to influence movies, shows, and video games, you’ll keep seeing some version of the femme fatale.
Best Film Noir Movies
Now, let’s put our newfound knowledge to the test with our list of the best film noir movies of all-time. We cover famous classics along with lesser known gems all from the genre’s black-and-white golden age.