The Femme Fatale: Ambiguity and Death

The Femme Fatale: Ambiguity and Death In cinema, the femme fatale is an enticing, exquisitely beautiful, erotic character who plays the ultimate trick of nature: she displays her beauty, captures the man and goes in for the kill. Unfortunately for this poisonous flower, male dominated western society interferes and kills the female predator in the end. In western cinema, the femme fatale can never survive, and can never “win” in the battle of the sexes. But why must this be so? What makes the femme fatale such a dangerously curious character for the hero as well as the viewer? In E.Ann Kaplan’s’ Women in Film Noir, Richard Dyer states “…women in film noir are above all else unknowable. It is not so much their evil as their unknowability (and attractiveness) that makes them fatal for the hero”.

Dyer’s observation alludes to the connection between the ambiguous female and the desperate need for the male to reveal her in order to possess her; it is the fear of the “unknowable” woman that makes her a direct target. This essay will explore the notion of ambiguity as a source of life as well as the ultimate reason for the death of the femme fatale.Before delving into the idea of ambiguity and its power of life and death for the femme fatale, an exploration into the actual women behind the character-type is crucial. The actress who portrays an ambiguous woman must herself, possess ambiguity, or she will never be believable and the fantasy of the femme fatale character is broken. Once we can see through the “bad girl” act, the portrayal becomes completely unsuccessful. Two actresses became infamous for their portrayals of two of the most well known femme fatales: Louise Brooks as Lulu and Rita Hayworth as Gilda.

In G. W.Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who infects men (and women) with her erotic gaze and causes much mayhem in a 1920’s Weimar Germany. The actress who would play Lulu had to be able to truly depict the kind of femme fatale that Pabst envisioned and would successfully capture on camera. The character of Lulu is a hedonistic carefree spirit who is well aware of her feminine wilds and understands the politics of sex. In the film, we watch as she manipulates many people with her beauty and eroticism and even plays with us, the viewer, as if she is aware we are watching her perform.But the woman we are watching is not Lulu; she is Louise Brooks frolicking on camera.

Brooks possess the ambiguity of the Lulu character as opposed to just portraying ambiguity on behalf of the role. Before the film even begins Louise Brooks is presenting an ambiguous persona, being an American actress starring in a German film, the audience is already simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Molly Haskell writes in her book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, that Pabst “in his search for the ideal Lulu for Pandora’s Box, found [Marlene] Dietrich, his ‘countrywoman,’ too ‘old’ and too ‘knowing. ”(Haskell, p. 83) Pabst needed an actress who was unknowable and unknown so that the mystery of the Lulu character would always be present. The audience is wondering who Lulu is as well as who Louise Brooks is; such a game keeps the viewers attention always on Lulu/Louise. If Pabst had used the already famous Dietrich in Pandora’s Box, the initial sense of ambiguity would no longer exist, as Dietrich is a recognizable German actress and the femme fatale that is Lulu, would not be passable.

Contributing to the allure of female ambiguity, Molly Haskell writes that directors and critics alike “find their erotic fancies tickled by women who are at opposite sides of the sexual-cultural pole from themselves. ” (Haskell, p. 82-3) The sexual appeal of the “exotic” woman is apart of the racial ambiguity that both Louise Brooks- an American actress playing a femme fatale in Germany, and Rita Hayworth- playing an American living in Argentina share.This idea that the men who create these films have a personal sexual investment in the choosing of the actresses who will play these dangerous beauties is a very interesting point Haskell brings about. If Marlene Dietrich couldn’t play Lulu because she isn’t ambiguous enough for Germany, her huge popularity overseas in America seems logical given the ambiguity she possess in front of an American audience. This is where Rita Hayworth’s side of the spectrum plays out in an interesting way. Rita Hayworth was an American actress in the 1940’s and portrayed the classic femme fatale in Gilda (1946) directed by Austrian-born Charles Vidor.

Rita Hayworth’s emergence into Hollywood included a grueling physical transformation to, in a sense, “tone down” her mixed race background of Spanish and Irish parents. What resulted was a lethal combination of exoticism and refined beauty; Rita Hayworth had the physical ability to be racially ambiguous enough to keep people’s attention but not so much as to truly raise questions about her Latin background. She had the curves, lips and sexualized mannerisms of a fantastical Latin woman, mixed with beautiful red hair and fair skin.As Gilda, Hayworth was made for the part of a femme fatale. Hayworth may even possess an ultimate ambiguity because her look remains unique in many parts of the world; her racial ambiguity is transportable. Louise Brooks and Rita Hayworth both brought with them, to their respective film set, their own ambiguities. The rest of the mystery behind these two dangerous female lead characters lies within their stories.

In Pandora’s Box, Lulu is a very youthful spirit who emerges on screen and remains on screen with a presence that is dreamlike.Her “spell” that she seems to cast on all those around her is the elimination of wrongdoing, consequence, sin, etc. All that surrounds Lulu is attention and unexplainable adoration, which she uses to try to maneuver her way out of trouble when she accidently shoots her new husband after a fight over the gun. Lulu effortlessly convinces a group of friends to help her escape the law and run away from all consequence. Lulu carelessly manipulates by seducing the people around her, all to help herself and her own desires.She is an enchantress of sorts, and even as a viewer, watching this from the outside, I found myself growing fond of this whimsical femme fatale. When things don’t turn out well for Lulu, she is starving with her “father” and her dead husband’s son who’s helped her run away, Lulu doesn’t learn her lesson on being a proper de-sexualized, grounded lady.

When starved and stranded in London, she applies make-up to her face and wanders the street for another victim to charm, and on her last voyage out into the cold, she meets her death at the hand of Jack the Ripper.The character of Lulu is ambiguous in many ways, and the first is in terms of her class. When we first meet Lulu, she is the kept woman of Schon (her soon to be dead husband), and is kept very well in a fancy flat just for her, for whenever he wants to see her. He appears to be of the upper-middle or upper-class and is a media-tycoon, where she eventually gets a part in his son’s production. Contrary to this comfortable life Lulu leads as Schon’s mistress, Lulu’s “father,” Schigolch, is a sloppy drunk who she tells Schon was her first patron, and helps him whenever he comes to her.Lulu teeters between two very clear class lines: the rich and the very poor, and we as the viewer want to consider her only one of those two categories. The ambiguity of Lulu’s class is interesting when you observe that she probably comes from a poor background, yet she acts like a spoiled little rich girl throughout much of the film.

Class ambiguity is also found in the Gilda story. Gilda emerges onto the screen as a game-changer for the main character, whom she sets out to destroy; a cheat gambler turned trusted casino manager named Johnny.Gilda represents the new rock wedged between Johnny and the casino owner Ballin, who doesn’t know that his new wife Gilda and Johnny were an item back in the United States before both coming separately to Buenos Aires. The social and class ambiguity that Gilda has here is that between her wealthy European husband, her ex-beau Johnny who came from next to no money (at the start of the film, Johnny nearly gets robbed of money he scams off of some sailors), and the local South American men she speaks to in Spanish and sings to in the very late hours of the night. She has an unexplained relationship to an older employee of the casino, whom she calls Uncle Pio and is very fond of. Gilda’s ambiguous class ties are no doubt linked with Rita/Gilda’s racial ambiguities as she can easily blend in and can clearly function, knowing the language, in the South American country alone from Johnny or Ballin. Sexual ambiguity is found with Lulu’s character, as she has the ability to cast spells on woman as well as she does with men, in particular one friend of Lulu’s, the Countess Geshwitz.

Throughout the film when the Countess is present it is very obvious that she is being seduced by Lulu in such a way that it appears the Countess is acting alone, and the vision of Lulu calling on the Countess simply a mirage. The Countess appears more sincere, wanting to dance with Lulu at her wedding to Schon in such a way; it looks as if Lulu and the Countess were the bride and groom. The Countess also gives Lulu money and helps her with whatever Lulu asks when she is on the run. Both Lulu and Gilda’s character’s share an ambiguity on their origin.We, the viewer, have no sense of where these femmes fatales came from, and this fact has significance when breaking down the character of the femme fatale. Not having a past is a very large part of Gilda. In a few parts of the film, Gilda, Johnny, and Ballin talk about this idea that they three are beginning anew and that there is no past for Gilda and Johnny before Ballin came into their lives.

They toast to the new group of three at dinner one night (referencing an earlier toast before Gilda entered the picture, between Johnny, Ballin, and Ballin’s sword-tipped cane) and this signifies the removal of any history of all three of them.In Lulu’s case, we never learn about her origins either, and with the chaos of the events during much of the film, we don’t seem to care about where she came from. The only key to a past we have of Lulu comes from her first patron, Schigolch. From that we may draw the conclusion that she may have come from the very low class up until she met Schon. But all of this is merely guessing, as nothing is really given away and Lulu remains ambiguous and only in the present tense. The persona of the femme fatale is that much like the Greek myth of Pandora’s box and the male anxiety that surrounds the dangerous woman.In fact, Laura Mulvey writes in Fetishism and Curiosity that, “Pandora is the prototype for the exquisite female android and, as a dangerous enchantress, she is also the prototype for the femme fatale” (Mulvey, p.55-6).

Pandora was made to by the Greek Gods to be brought to man in order to deliver all the evils of the world, which she held in a small box. She was told to never open the box, but was told this with the God’s knowing her curiosity would get the best of her, and she opened the box. Chaos escaped out of the box and the only thing that remained was hope. The femme fatale is a manufactured, cosmetic woman who is placed in a film noir to bring about destruction to the main male character while appearing to seduce him. The femme fatale may go even further and entice the audience, and in a few cases she succeeds- there is an admiration of this figure by both men and women and some to the degree of fetish- but the femme fatale can never live without meeting her demise. This happens in Pandora’s Box with Lulu’s fatal demise, as well as with Gilda in a metaphorical sense.

In Gilda, after Ballin skips town abruptly, Johnny and Gilda get back together but only for a brief time until Johnny begins to get controlling. Gilda flees only to return for the famous striptease scene, and later Ballin returns again to avenge the pair for betraying him. When Ballin dies, Johnny and Gilda make up, and Gilda completely changes from this rebellious firebird we’ve watched for three-quarters of the film to a quaint and very quiet woman, ready to go home with Johnny. Here, the femme fatale dies in a figurative sense, as if Gilda were simply wearing a mask and Johnny tore it off her face to reveal her true wholesome self. So why the abrupt endings in both films? It is possible the directors of both films wanted to keep the fantasy going for as long as possible, feeding into the male and female desire that is being explored on screen yet keep true to western convention and punish the “bad” while rewarding the “good. ” It is also quite possible that the male dominated western world couldn’t handle the femme fatale winning the battle because as Mulvey observes, “within this aesthetic, masculine desire is caught in an oscillation between erotic obsession with the female body and fear of the castration that it signifies.It is, of course, the fear of castration, and subsequent disavowal of the woman’s body as castrated that Freud saw as the cause of male fetishism.

It is interesting to think the male dominated film industry at the time of these films may have been playing with an image of woman that could figuratively castrate men while visually pleasing them, creating what Mulvey says Freud observed as earl fetishism. The femme fatale must then represent an object that arouses sexual desire up until the point of castration, and then the femme fatale will always die in order for the male to survive. She was created to please and then destroy, just like Pandora.


  1. Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.
  2. Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Canada. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston of Canada, 1973,1974. Print.
  3. Dyer, Richard. “Resistance through charisma: Rita Hayworth and Gilda. ” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1978, 1980. 91-100. Print.

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