The original meaning of a “femme fatale” is at least as old as humanity itself. The symbol of a seductive, immoral female figure first emerged in the initial story of Adam and Eve. The femme fatale motif runs like a red thread in various literary works such a Heinrich Heine’s Loreley or the dancing daughter of Herodias in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, as well as in musical pieces like Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale“ from 1966 to the conscious, vivid personification in a number of film works.
Femme fatale has its cinematic origin already in the silent film era from the early 1920s. Actresses like Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson and Marlene Dietrich served as cinematic mothers who broke with the conventional stereotypes of one-dimensional, needy women dependent on the man, and showed more depth and sophistication.
The peak of the personification of a strong woman was then reached in the film noir era from the 1940s, in which the term “femme fatale” was officially recognized as the epitome of a manipulative, cold-blooded and sexual self-determining attitude. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity from 1944 is still regarded as a classic of that time. Probably at no other time in Hollywood have more profound women’s roles ever been created.
However, with the modernization of the film business, the image of women has also changed increasingly. After another revival of neo-noir film, the femme fatale persona has altered as well. Over the years she has become more and more independent, cold-blooded and does not use her intrigues to primarily gain wealth or power, but rather she uses her calculus as a kind of pleasure to place herself in a position of power.
This list specifically deals with the alteration of the film business, the social emancipation and the motives of those cunning power games.
14. Body Heat (1981) – Mrs. Matty Walker
During an unbearable heat wave in Florida, the unscrupulous lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) meets the married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) and becomes entangled in a passionate affair. They decide to kill Matty’s rich husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) in order to get possession of his wealth. After Ned tries to disguise the murder as an accident, he arouses considerable suspicion for the police.
The smooth, mysterious jazz music accentuates the sultry severity of the themed heat wave in the entire film. But the music also matches the inscrutable figure of Matty Walker. At first glance, with her elegance and aloofness, she reminds one of a young Lauren Bacall, the chain-smoking femme fatale who exudes boldness and coolness.
As Ned Racine is characterized by a strong passion for the fair sex and has a certain reputation as a womanizer, he is irretrievably fooled and entraps himself in her unobtrusive, latent seduction methods, her obvious femininity and her manipulation, which animates for murder.
13. Brick (2005) – Ms. Laura Dannon
The Brain (Matt O’Leary) is the only friend that loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has at his high school. Both team up to investigate some mysterious events. Brendan’s ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) sounds desperate on the phone and wants to meet him. However, she disappears shortly afterwards without a trace. With the help of his buddy, Brendan starts his investigation and slides at once into a strange world.
Emily has slipped into the underground of the high school scene and has ended tragically. Brendan meets his classmate Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner), who seems to know more than she wants to admit. After some revelatory information, Brendan finds Emily’s body under an underpass and then he works against those responsible for the local drug scene because he suspects to find the culprit there. After some brutal attacks, he meets the underworld boss “The Pin” (Lukas Haas) and brings himself into life- threatening danger.
Although one would not expect a film noir scenery in a high school environment, the film Brick fulfills all the classic features of a neo-noir film. Laura is a classic femme fatale role, although she appears in a contemporary American environment. She plays a double game, but she doesn’t show this obviously, since she apparently supports Brendan’s investigations. However, her appearance simply does not match the classic appearance of a femme fatale, since she appears very girly with her ‘60s pixie look.
12. Wild Things (1997) – Suzie Toller / Kelly Van Ryan
Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a handsome and likeable school psychologist who has a good connection to his students, but one day a scandal occurs: the millionaire’s daughter Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) claims that the popular teacher abused his authority and raped her. It comes to a scandalous trial, in which Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), a problematic girl from the school, who is living in a trailer park, also takes part in the trial and accuses Sam of sexual abuse.
However, Lombardo’s attorney Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray) can quickly demonstrate that the accusations are false and prove Lombardo’s innocence. In order to avoid a defamation suit, the family Van Ryan pays Lombardo damages in the amount of 8 million dollars. However, the investigating cop Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) begins to have doubts about the plausibility of the case.
Quite unusual for this film is the fact that there is not only one femme fatale, but two of them, who increase the suspense twice as much. Initially unnoticed by the viewer, the intrigues begin to occur from the first minute. The two women apply different manipulation methods.
Kelly, the spoiled upper class girl with a razor-sharp appearance, uses her femininity to weaken her victims with pure sexual seduction, while Suzie, a nondescript white trash girl with intelligence above 200 points, succeeds to deceive everyone and finally goes out as a winner of the game, even though the cards are constantly being shuffled.
11. Cruel Intentions (1999) – Kathryn Merteuil
The step-siblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) live in the luxury of the New York upper class. Unattended, they are being financed by their mostly absent parents. Sebastian is a young man who is adept at taking advantage of women.
By contrast, Kathryn presents herself as a flawless elite college student with an activity as a Head Girl. However, she conceals even deeper human abysses of calculation and wounded vanity than her brother. Bored with her existence, she offers Sebastian a perfidious bet to revenge herself upon her ex-lover in a very discreet manner. Sebastian wagers his 1956 Jaguar XK120 for the prospect of sex with the unattainable stepsister.
The role of the self-proclaimed Casanova is the seduction of the pious virgin exemplary student Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). The persons involved entangle themselves in an increasingly dense web of intrigue, and Sebastian reluctantly falls in love with Annette and risks far more than just his car.
On the one hand, Kathryn is a femme fatale who takes pleasure in sadism and manipulation. On the other hand, it is a way to compensate her inner emptiness and sorrow of a hedonistically educated upper class child that needs to present herself to the outside world as well-mannered, educated and pious.
The film is based on the literary classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Although the plot of the book takes place in France in the 18th century, the modern version is moved to New York in the presence, but all existing social structures are maintained.
10. Golden Eye (1995) – Xenia Onatopp
Double-zero agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is given an order by his principal, the intelligence chief M (Judi Dench), to regain the access codes for the potential super-weapon “Golden Eye,” an electromagnetic radiation satellite that could destroy all life on Earth.
The codes were taken into possession by the military organization “Janus,” and the Russian General Orumov (Gottfried John) attempts to come to power in his chaotic country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. James Bond sets off on the hunt together with Natalya Simonova (Isabella Scorupco), a computer specialist. He meets the Russian spy Xenia, who acts as a deadly sex bomb. James Bond doesn’t guess that the enemy is within his own ranks.
Xenia Onatopp is the epitome of a diabolical Bond villain. She loves fast cars, is adept at gambling and smokes cigarettes with an unimpressed air. Xenia is danger on two legs. She is military trained, cold-blooded and ruthless, and masters lethal close combat techniques, which she applies during sexual acts. She is a cobra-like killing machine, who crushes her victim with her legs.
9. Fatal Attraction (1987) – Alex Forrest
The New York lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) leads an orderly and routine family life. He is professionally very successful, has a very pretty wife and a lovely daughter. One day he meets colleague Alex (Glenn Close) and becomes entangled in a thoughtless and reckless weekend affair. Although Dan interprets the adventure as a one-time thing, Alex cannot accept his limit. Alex puts Dan increasingly under pressure in a very perfidious manner, so that Dan cannot withstand it much longer.
Alex Forrest is an obvious femme fatale, since the first sexual impulse is influenced by her. Although in the beginning she presents herself as an independent and tough woman, the facade begins to crumble in no time and her true self comes to the fore. She skillfully covers up her unstable and pathological personality, which mounts in attachment, aggression and hysteria. Obviously she suffers from bipolar disorder, coupled with suicidal tendencies.
Alex Forrest becomes an unscrupulous perpetrator, as she has problems with being alone and acts out her deficits through a compulsive behavior, such as switching the light on and off in an incessant manner. If she is ignored, her feelings escalate and she would rather destroy the object of desire than not possess it.
8. Original Sin (2001) – Julia Russell / Bonnie Castle
In Cuba at the turn of the century, the wealthy plantation owner Luis Antonio Vargas (Antonio Banderas) is in search of a potential wife and gets to know her by mail contact. He waits excitedly for the ship with his future wife Julia Russell (Angelina Jolie), an American, who he has previously only known from a portrait. But as he stands in front of Julia Russell, he is surprised: she is much prettier than the woman in the photo.
This planned marriage of convenience evolves into a passionate love relationship, even if Luis cannot penetrate all the secrets behind Julia. When one day a private investigator (Thomas Jane) shows up and claims that he is looking for the real Julia Russell, Julia disappears without a trace with all his assets. However, even his disappointment, anger and revengefulness cannot kill his love for Julia. Luis decides to look for Julia himself and to find out more about her fictitious past.
Julia Russell, aka Bonnie Castle, is a born liar. It’s no surprise that she has worked as an actress for many years and has mastered her role. She is a woman with little ladylike past. Growing up without parents, she had to learn rip-off skills in order to survive on the street. Therefore, she knows all the gambling tricks and ensnares wealthy men with her breathtaking femininity.
Bonnie is ruthless, since she eliminates everything that interferes in her life. She has a sadistic streak that makes it easy for her not to cringe even when killing an animal (bird). However, a crucial aspect separates her from the usual femme fatale image: In a moment of weakness, she falls in love with her husband Luis and breaks with the past, conducting an orderly life in chaos.