ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

REBECCA ROMJIN

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by Jaime Mastromonica

Beautiful women are seldom seen as Serious Actresses until they do something to uglify themselves (c.f. Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose in The Hours and Charlize Theron's weight gain in Monster) and thus prove their devotion to their craft.  Models and former models in particular are dismissed offhand. Examples such as the well regarded Lorraine Bracco and Anjelica Huston (who tend to keep their origins as models on the down-low) to the contrary, conventional wisdom still holds that models can't act.
 
 I do not hope to defend all models that turn to acting, as clearly some performances-such as Kathy Ireland's in Loaded Weapon 1 and Necessary Roughness or Cindy Crawford's in Fair Game-are inexcusably, abysmally flat.  Rebecca Romijn on the other hand has been unfairly overlooked as an actress due to her incredible beauty, and her work in the X-Men movies and, especially, Femme Fatale (2002) warrants further scrutiny.
 
 Romijn's first significant film role was as Mystique in X-Men.  The name conveniently echoes Betty Friedan's famous feminist tract The Feminine Mystique (the character Mystique was introduced in 1978 ; the book was published in 1963); this confluence is serendipitous and fruitful.  The reference is somewhat ironic: the feminine mystique, according to Friedan, is the stereotype that the nature of women is to be sexually passive, nurturing, and dominated by men.  Could any description be further from the character Mystique as portrayed by Romijn-Stamos in the two X-Men movies?  Sexually courageous, she attempts to seduce Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and walks around in her natural form (blue and naked,) though as a shape shifter she could assume a less conspicuous appearance if she wanted.  A villainous character, she dispatches several foes (all men, interestingly) with ease.  This is a femme fatale whose body is her weapon both literally and figuratively.  
 
 In The Feminine Mystique Friedan also argues that society traps women into the role of housewives and mothers, leaving them no chance to play alternate roles.  Mystique, of course, can literally be anyone she wants to be; she can assume the physical appearance and voice of anyone she has ever seen.  When asked by a fellow mutant why she doesn't remain in an assumed shape and "look like everyone else" (i.e., blend in with non-mutants) she matter-of-factly responds, "Because we shouldn't have to."  In other words, because she chooses not to.  Mystique isn't trapped in her own appearance or in any role: given limitless options, she chooses to be her blue scaly self.
 
 Mystique is a strong character rife with feminist overtones, but then so are the other female mutants in the X-Men universe. Storm (Halle Berry), for example, can control the weather and Rogue (Anna Paquin), arguably the strongest of all the mutants, can absorb the life force of others with the touch of her hand.  But Berry turns Storm into the most milquetoast of the mutants, and Paquin's Rogue is more tortured gothic heroine than superhero.  Thus it is not the script, but Romijn's performance that turns Mystique into an empowered figure.  She imbues the character with a tremendous confidence and sexual openness that informs her every movement. 
 
 This assurance extends to her interactions with her fellow actors, most notably with Magneto (Ian McKellen).  Romijn is clearly comfortable holding her own with the knighted thespian.  McKellen in turn shows his respect for Romijn as an actress by turning to her for frequent asides and significant glances in their scenes together.  It was McKellen who suggested to director Bryan Singer that a line be changed from "I" to "We love what you've done with your hair," to reflect Mystique's status as Magneto's confidant and sometime equal.
 
 Though she communicates much with her physicality, Romijn very rarely speaks in either film.  Some viewers may be troubled by the fact that she is "denied a voice," or assume that the filmmakers avoided giving her dialogue due to her limitations as an actress. I would argue that it's not that she's denied a voice; merely that speech becomes extraneous.  As Stephanie Zacharek put it, "her movements are her line readings: They tell us everything we need to know about her without using anything so mundane as words." (3). Her physical eloquence refutes any doubts about her acting skills.  Her most expressive moment as Mystique comes late in X-Men 2.  There is a dangerous mission to be undertaken and leader.  Magneto is somewhat afraid to do it himself, he turns to Mystique, whom he trusts to get the job done.  Clearly, she also trusts herself.  When called upon she calmly rises to the challenge, coolly untroubled by the dangerous mission she is expected to undertake. Wolverine volunteers also, though with much more trepidation.
 

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Romijn's experience as a model may in fact be makes her so successful as an actress, which is ironic in light of society’s expectations based on what they see as a very artistically dubious profession. Her self-assured physicality is no doubt born from the years she spent half-naked on runways and in the pages of Sports Illustrated and the Victoria's Secret catalogue.  What makes her different from other model-turned-actresses, however, is her ability to forget about the camera.  Print modeling requires models to be aware of the camera and how they look in front of it at all times.  This awareness often leads to a stiff or awkward performance style when these models turn to acting.  Naturalistic film acting decrees that the performer "forget" that there is a camera watching them, which many models seem unable to do (c.f. Shalom Harlow's woodenness in In & Out and Cherry.)  Romijn somehow manages to achieve a balance that is the best of both worlds: she hasn't forgotten how to use her body, but she has forgotten that there is a camera watching her.  This results in an "enviable physical confidence,"  which is a hallmark of her acting style. 

Reviewers of Femme Fatale mention the "fearless bravado" she brings to the role of Laure  and her "unselfconscious willingness to be naughty, sexy and provocative in a way that more established actresses…might avoid."   Others refer to the "nervy and determined…way she carries herself, as if she'd come to an understanding of her character within her very bones and muscles." 
 
 Like "mystique", the term "femme fatale" is one fraught with meaning for feminists. The term is commonly used to describe the anti-heroines of film noir.  They are beautiful, seductive and duplicitous, motivated solely by greed and self-interest.  They seduce men into committing immoral acts only to subsequently betray them, leading to their doom.  Romijn herself defines a femme fatale as "a woman who knows what her strengths are and uses them in a manipulative way…a woman with balls." (5)  

 Traditionally, femme fatales undergo a final transformation in their films.  This happens in the final scenes of their stories in one of two ways: repenting or dying. The repentant bad girl is a horrifying thing to see from a feminist standpoint.  In these films, gloriously self confident, if evil, women (as opposed to virtuous but boring traditional heroines) are redeemed by their love of a good man and become docile creatures.  This character arc, while prevalent in 20th century cinema, finds its archetype in the work of an unlikely author: William Shakespeare. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine, the Bard's fiery female protagonist, verbally spars with Petruchio, one of her suitors. Over time however, Petruchio woos and eventually calms her-the "taming" of the title. 
 
Critics have argued that in classic noir films, femmes fatale bring about their own destruction "through [their] rebellion against ideologically acceptable female roles."  Instead of being nurturing, they are killers.   Far from being ominated by men, they seduce and control the men around them.  The behavior that dooms femmes fatale, however, is not the former but the latter; it is not their criminal behavior but their sexual aggression that seals their fate.  The femme fatale, according to Janey Place, "represents man's own sexuality, which must be repressed and controlled if it is not to destroy him." 

Zizek, explicating Lacan, takes this notion even further.  To Lacan, the femme fatale poses a threat "not just to the hero's integrity, but to his very ontological identity."  Woman is the symptom of man, the embodiment of his initial fall from grace in Eden, and a constant reminder that man gave way to his desires.   Therefore, women, and especially sexually open women, represent failure, destruction, death.  The (anti)hero's rejection of the femme fatale is "effectively a retreat from the death drive." (10)  To fail to reject her is to ensure their own deaths.  Like a black widow spider, the femme fatale lures men into her web, where they will be inextricably caught and killed.  But unlike spiders, femmes fatale can also get caught in the webs they spin.  Femmes fatale are deadly both to male characters and to themselves.
 
 Femme Fatale can be seen as Brian De Palma's response to the critics who have charged him with misogyny over the years. (7) In this film he not only presents a triumphant female (anti-) heroine, he makes her a savior to other women.   Women save other women constantly in this film.  Laure prevents Veronica from being killed both at the beginning and the end of the film, and keeps Lily from killing herself.   By doing so, she also saves her own life.  Men do not fare as well in their attempts as saviors.  As Smith points out, in De Palma's movies "the hero never saves the girl."   Thus, in this film when Nicolas tries to save Laure he ends up trapped by her and sealing his own doom.
 
Yet Laure isn't the typical noir bad girl. In this film, Romijn proves her range as an actress by playing several different versions of "bad" and "good" girls.  At the far end of the "bad" spectrum is Laure in the later part of the dream sequence, when she has resumed her American accent.  Film noir, according to Janey Place, is "a male fantasy."   How then to explain the fact that the noir elements in this film all come in a sequence which turns out to be a dream had by the female lead?  The explanation comes in Romijn performance.  Laure is living out her own fantasy as herself as the ultimate bad girl.   Whether flirting with a room full of men, performing a strip tease or pulling a gun, Romijn-Stamos performs this aspect of her character with clear relish.  Her best moment in this role, and indeed in the entire film, comes when Nicolas and the biker are fighting over her and she watches them eagerly, laughing in delight. The message is clear: this Laure is bad and loves it.
 
 Thus, it is no surprise in Femme Fatale the men she doublecrossed finally catch up to her and toss her off a bridge.  Sixty years of cinematic precedence suggest this is the logical end for her.  However, the rug is soon pulled out from under the audience, as it were, denying the traditional male satisfaction of the femme fatale getting her patriarchal knock-down. Laure wakes up in the bath and we realize the past hour of the movie has been a prophetic dream.  Contrary to the traditions of film noir, the most fatalistic of genres, Laure is given a chance to change her fate.  For this reason, Gavin Smith of Film Comment calls Femme Fatale "a redemptive noir,"  though this description is not entirely satisfactory.  Though Laure does prevent Lily from committing suicide, Romijn makes it clear that Laure is still motivated purely by self interest.  She doesn't tell Lily, "I saw the error of my ways," but rather, "I've seen the future and it sucks." The look on Romijn face throughout the suicide prevention scene is one of steely resolve, even as she appeals to Lily's romantic side (you're going to meet a man on the plane who will fall in love with you.)  Clearly, it is not the preservation of Lily's life she is concerned with, but her own.  She's not sorry for the choices that she made in the dream, but she doesn't like the way things turn out.  Romijn-Stamos makes it clear that Laure is a noir rarity: an unrepentant bad girl who lives.  Thus, this is not a redemptive, but a progressive noir.  As opposed to traditional noir films, which do not "present us with role models who defy their fate and triumph over it"  Femme Fatale's heroine ends the film victorious.

 According to the strictures of the film noir genre, the unrepentant bad girl has no option but death.  Whether at the hands of the man she has betrayed (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) or by a twist of karmic justice/fate (Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice) the bad girl is always punished in the end.  In the case of Femme Fatale, Laure is thwarted by a combination of the two. The thieves she betrays at the beginning of the film eventually catch up with her, but, in a twist of karmic justice, they are led to her by Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), another man she has betrayed.

 If Romijn's behavior in this aspect of the role is outrageous and over the top, there is a reason: she is parodying the traditional femme fatale.  Femme Fatale makes this playfully mocking relationship with noir apparent from the opening sequence.  The first shot of the film is Laure reflected in a television set as she watches Double Indemnity.  Banderas' name appears on screen accompanied by a close-up of Fred MacMurry, and Romijn's name appears during a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck (perhaps the greatest of all femmes fatale in her role as Phyllis Dietrichson.)  The title appears on screen at the same instant that Phyllis shoots Walter.  Later in the film, Laure even echoes a line Phyllis says just after shooting Walter, telling Nicolas that she is "rotten to the heart". 

 One step down the badness scale is Laure from the beginning of the dream sequence, when she is posing as the ambassador's abused wife.  In this characterization, Romijn isn't as much overtly bad as devious.  This is the guise she uses when seducing men: first Watts (Peter Coyote) on the plane, and then Nicolas in the hotel room in Paris.  Romijn gives this character a breathy French accent and a helpless, lost air.  In moments of duplicity, such as when she removes the fake black eye or hits a waitress with a champagne bottle, Romijn allows a perverse little smile to play across her face as her character's true nature shines through the helpless façade.  Her best moment in this incarnation comes on the plane when she first meets Watts.  Her face is shown in close-up and on the surface she appears tremulous and innocent, interested in what Watts is saying.  In her eyes, however, you can observe her machinations: she is sizing Watts up, and deciding how to best use him to her benefit.

 Romijn's next characterization is real-time Laure, the semi-good girl.  This Laure is cool and professional, her seduction of Veronica (Rie Rasmussen) paralleled with the movements of Racine as he uses a laser to disable the lights.  Though she is a thief, she is clearly squeamish about killing.  "You said no guns," she admonishes Black Tie, implicitly disapproving of his murder of the security guard, and although it is in her best interest to do so, she doesn't kill him when she has the chance.  Romijn shows us that this Laure isn't entirely self-centered.  When watching Lily's suicide attempt, she winces and looks away as the trigger is pulled.  Romijn exhibits believable concern and sympathy as she watches the bereaved woman.  Her acting here is quite subtle, as conflicting emotions play across her face: should she let Lily kill herself so she can take the ticket and passport, or should she intervene?

 Finally, Romijn portrays Lily, a completely good girl.  She only appears as this character for two scenes, but these scenes are emotionally challenging to the extent they would be completely beyond the range of a typical model-actress.  In the sequence leading up to the suicide attempt, Romijn shows palpable vulnerability and gives a moving portrait of bereavement.  She is even better in the scene with the truck driver, letting a subtle sens of grief seep through an otherwise composed  veneer.  In her final close up, we see both pain and strength in her eyes: she is still hurting, but has resolved that life can go on.

 In the X-Men films and Femme Fatale, Romijn proves herself as an actress, striking a blow on behalf of models everywhere audience She has parodic fun with both good and bad girl roles and is a natural at embodying playing confident characters who completely ignore what society expects of them.  Sympathy lies with her even when she is playing an outright villains such as Mystique. The frank and unapologetic way in which she presents herself is nearly impossible not to respect and admire.  The confidence and fearlessness that Romijn brings to these roles make her worthy of consideration as a Serious Actress.  In these three films, she is a complete joy to watch, and her unjustly overlooked abilities deserve reconsideration.  ++

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NOTES:
1.  In Ms. Marvel 16 according to uncannyxmen.net
 2. "Director's Commentary." X2: X-Men United, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD. 2003.
 3. Zacharek, Stephanie.  "X2".  Salon.  05/02/2003. 
http://www.salon.com
4.   Zacharek, "X2". 
 5. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the "bad girl" character as Laure throughout this essay, though she goes by the name Lily for a good portion of the film.  I will only use Lily to refer to the suicidal French woman who Romijn-Stamos also plays.
6.  Taylor, Charles.  "Femme Fatale."  Movie review.  11/06/2002. 
http://www.salon.com
 7. Zacharek, Stephanie.  "Nuns, whores, and femmes fatales."  Salon. 03/20/2003.  http://www.salon.com
 8. "From Dream to Reality."  Featurette on Femme Fatale.  Warner Home Video, 2003.
 9. Wagner, Jans.  Dangerous Dames.  Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1999. 133
  Place, Janey.  "Women in Film Noir." Women in Film Noir.  E. Anne Kaplan, ed.  London: BFI, 1998.  57.
 10. Žižek, Slavoj.  Enjoy Your Symptom! New York: Routledge, 2001. 154
  11.Žižek 156
 12.  Smith, Gavin.  "Dream Project." Film Comment.   Nov/Dec 2002.
 Another example of a triumphant bad girl is Linda Fiorentino's character in      The Last Seduction.
 13. Place 47
  14.It's not an entirely successful response: De Palma still takes a little too much glee in the frequent use of the word "bitch".
  15.Smith
  16. Place 47


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