faux leather pants and knit beanie, Express. combat boots, Forever 21. sweater, hand-me-down from Big Bro. denim jacket, Vintage Levi's.
Photography by Benny Pinto
The dark, smoky quality of this shoot sent me into a marathon of film noir consumption. My Netflix queue riddled with Humphrey Bogart and Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Lauren Becall in narrative gems of crime and innocent seduction scenes which, when placed in the context of the time, are steamy, sultry, breaths of sexiness. They are stories where the female protagonist acts as a representative for the death of the cult of domesticity. She bats her eyelashes, asks for a light, and when no one is looking, kills a man who in the throws of the jumbled morals of film noir, may or may not have deserved it. The femme fatale formula: gorgeousness mixed with danger and a penchant for manipulating a male protagonist, is classic. However, in the 21st Century, where women have an array of behavioral examples pointing toward strength, the classic image of a bombshell femme fatale, all eyelashes and pouty lips, is a little dated and weak.
In The Lady from Shanghai, Rita Hayworth’s character, Elsa Bannister, is everything femme and everything murderous. Blonde, bejeweled, fur cloaked, and unhappily married to a rich judge, she becomes intertwined in a plot of mostly her own making. She bats her eyelashes at the smart yet impressionable Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) and plays the dumb blonde while manipulating every man within visual range of her overt sex appeal. Michael is instantly charmed and admits it saying, “[...] From that moment I did not use my head, except to think about her,” which he follows later on with a jilted questioning, “Do all rich woman play games like this?”
Elsa definitely has strength and a power to manipulate with her perfectly curled lashes, full red lips and slinky gowns. She harnesses the power of styling and über-femme posturing. But I have a beef with this image of womanpower. While she is sexy, exciting, and strong, all desirable traits, her strength is tainted by her execution thereof. Maybe it’s my 21st Century mindset, but applying the word ‘strong’ to a female character who sulkily requests her coat to be put on for her, says things like “Gimme a cigarette,” and impatiently waits for it to be lit, is not exactly strong. Elsa demands chivalry, but chivalry can’t be demanded, and when it’s not offered a woman should whip out her own pack of cigarettes and light one with her own Zippo, or matches, whatever. Elsa is not exactly the primmest and most proper of ladies. You’d think a woman who committed murder like it ain’t no thang, would have no problem locating a tobacco outlet and getting her own squares.
A prime cinematic example of a truly strong femme fatale, one who has her own pack of cigarettes and can even light them herself, is Anne Parillaud’s character in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nakita. Nakita begins as a drug addicted teen who isn’t afraid to shoot, and becomes a beguiling woman with a career in killing. One of her trainers, Amande, morphs her from the cop-killing hellion she began as, into the understated and beautiful Maria, a fearless assassin.
Amande teaches Nakita femininity as a mother would to her daughter. She guides her into the art of mild sexuality expounding the power of a smile:
“[…] You could smile more. You’ve always got that when you can’t respond. It won’t make you more intelligent…but it’s more enjoyable for those who have to watch. And if you have it…perhaps its fragility gives my girl an advantage. A smile. A smile…and soon you’ll have its power…as if from your very soul.”
In the beginning Nakita is all child-like messiness, short, dirty, bed-headed hair, sullied tank tops and torn jeans. She’s something to fear, snaps boisterously with French cursing and stabs cops with their own pens. She’ll trip up an agent and steal his gun to point it directly at his temple and attempt to escape. But in the hands of Amande, with her vanity full of the tools of femininity, by way of pink lipstick and mascara wands, Nakita learns how to harness her fearlessness. In the last scene of Amande as trainer and Nakita in transition, the two women look at Nakita’s reflection in the vanity mirror as Nakita puts a pale shade of pink to her lips. Amande says,
“Let go and you’ll find what pleases. The pleasure of the feminine and remember …there are only two things without limit. Femininity…and the means to exploit it.”