The Neo-Noir Femme Fatale

Updated on July 11, 2018

As a postmodern director, Christopher Nolan uses the semantics of classical Noir in his sophomore feature-length film Memento but changes the syntax to provide a different meaning or function of the semantic. This can be seen within Nolan’s personal statement on his reason behind filming within the neo-noir genre style:

'To many people, film noir has become this nostalgic image of guys in raincoats and fedoras coming down alleyways. But when you go back and look at the films you realize they were very contemporary stories, imbued with exaggerated everyday fears. I wanted to do a modern noir which would reawaken some of that paranoia in a slightly different way.'

This article will focus on Nolan’s depiction of Memento’s neo-noir femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), and analyze her role within a subverted syntax in comparison to the role of the more conventional noir femme fatale.

Chiaroscuro lighting used to emphasize Natalie's ambiguity
Chiaroscuro lighting used to emphasize Natalie's ambiguity

Natalie is portrayed as the femme fatale in many ways. Elements of the film style portray Natalie as an untrustworthy character to the audience, and more directly, to the protagonist Leonard. One element, in particular, can be seen in the photograph Leonard (Guy Pearce) takes of Natalie. Leonard uses Polaroid photos as a key narrative device, and to structure his inability to create new memories, but more importantly, Leonard relies on these photographs and various notes to develop an understanding of the characters he deals with. Claire Molloy explains that: ‘[o]f all the Polaroid pictures that Leonard carries, the one of Natalie stands apart… In the image, her face is consequently partly obscured by shadow, a signifier of her character as the morally ambivalent femme fatale.’ The chiaroscuro lighting in the picture provides the classical noir notion of an ambiguity of trust. As pointed out by Molloy, Natalie’s face is only partly lit; the rest is covered in the darkness. This metaphorically, and conventionally portrays the ambiguity of Natalie. Her character is not fully uncovered, just like her face in the photograph.

Natalie's visible black bra within a mid-shit dowsed in a dark colour palette
Natalie's visible black bra within a mid-shit dowsed in a dark colour palette

As well as the Polaroid photo creating an ambiguity of character for Natalie, a binary opposition is set between Natalie and Leonard’s deceased wife Catherine (Jorja Fox). Natalie is often depicted in black clothing, and in regard to the Polaroid photo, the low key lighting used parallels her black clothes as she is represented dark and mysterious. One piece of Natalie’s costume, in particular, represents her as the femme fatale. According to Claire Molloy; ‘Natalie’s black bra is visible beneath a sheer black cropped top, referencing the visual iconography of the sexual power of the femme fatale.’ As Natalie is encoded as sexually dangerous, just like the classic noir femme fatale, there is a clear contrast in comparison to the more purified representation of Catherine. Whenever Leonard reminisces about his wife Catherine, the lighting is always high key, creating an angelic aura around the figure of Catherine. Also, to further contrast the representation of Natalie, Catherine is often seen at times wearing plain white underwear. Compared to Natalie’s overtly sexualized black bra, this makes Catherine less threatening to Leonard sexually, and more of a homely domesticated figure. Therefore the feminine binary opposition of the Madonna and the whore is set clearly, and emphasized, within the representation of both central female characters.

Although Natalie is represented stylistically similar to the classic noir femme fatale, she performs differently to this classical figure, as she manipulates the male protagonist in a more unusual way than simply alluring him sexually. Natalie manipulates Leonard to a point of violence. She purposely aggravates Leonard so that he reacts aggressively violent towards her. She achieves this as Leonard eventually abuses Natalie. As Hilary Neroni explains that the femme fatale’s ‘fate usually involves violence’ Although Natalie’s fate from this manipulation does involve violence, the key difference to the classical femme fatale is that this violence is not Natalie’s punishment. ‘In film noir, the femme fatale suffers for her manipulations; in neo-noir, she gets away with it.’ Instead of suffering from Leonards violence Natalie achieves satisfaction from being able to manipulate the situation and generate a violent outcome. According to Mark Conrad; ‘the femme fatale of noir is replaced in neo­-noir by a victim.’ Natalie performs this notion, as she creates a fictitious scenario from the actual event of Leonard abusing her. Her “suffering” essentially enables her to use Leonard’s weakness to her advantage and manipulates Leonard onto a different and dangerous narrative strand of killing a rival drug dealer Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) for her own benefit, and personal vendetta.

In conclusion, Natalie’s narrative function, and presence on screen is arguably different to the classic noir femme fatale. As a femme fatale Natalie does not only provoke a sexual threat, and a disillusion towards the protagonist’s narrative investigation, she provides a higher purpose to the narrative by exposing an ambiguity of the protagonist himself. Andrew Kania’s case study of Memento observes that; ‘[t]he figure of Natalie serves a central narrative function: to raise questions for the viewer about Leonard's comprehension of ongoing events and his own actions.’ Therefore there is a subversion of the classical noir semantics. Instead of the audience questioning the trust of the ambiguous femme fatale by taking the position of the male protagonist, they, in fact, question the trust of the protagonist they are being positioned with. If the audience knows from the obscure narrative structure of the film that Natalie is not to be trusted, then they have no reason to trust Leonard’s lack of true judgment.

Work's Cited

Conrad, Mark, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (Kentucky: University Press, 2007)

Kania, Andrew, Memento (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Molloy, Claire, Memento (Edinburgh: University Press Ltd, 2010)

Neroni, Hilary, ‘The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence’ in Contemporary American Cinema (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005)

© 2018 Andy Sciambarella


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