In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Eva Green, the French actress (see above) is treacherous, deadly and alluring enough to turn a polar ice cap into a cloud of steam.
Her character has a name – Ava Lord – but she might as well be called simply Femme Fatale. She is just the latest in a long line of cinematic devil women who beguile viewers as surely as they beguile their weak-willed prey.
But the femme fatale doesn’t just give audiences a delectable taste of forbidden fruit. Dr Catherine O’Rawe of Bristol University is the editor of an academic survey of the subject, Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, and she argues that such fictional seductresses reflect society’s mixed feelings towards independent women.
“The figure of the female temptress is as old as Eve,” says O’Rawe.
“But the femme fatale as we understand it emerged in the late 19th Century, when the term was applied to a range of fin-de-siècle figures such as Salome, Rider Haggard’s She and Bram Stoker’s female vampires.
What’s striking is that these figures arose at the same time as concerns about emancipated women occupying the public sphere.”
There were similar concerns in the air during the femme fatale’s big-screen heyday. The movies have always featured wicked women: in 1915, Hollywood’s original ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, ensnared and destroyed a respectable Wall Street lawyer in A Fool There Was.
Photo: Rita Hayworth.
But it was in the 1940s that such film noir classics as Gilda, The Killers, Murder, My Sweet and Double Indemnity brought us the definitive femmes fatales: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck at their most hazardously alluring.
Photo: Veronica Lake
Sometimes evil, sometimes in thrall to a villainous male, the vamp in these films used her hypnotic eroticism to get what she wanted – up to and including murder.
She may have been a fantasy, says Dr Ellen Wright, a film noir specialist at the University of East Anglia, but she personified real issues.