Film & TV Literature

The Femme Fatale in Literature and Film

Artwork and Picture by Nicole-Rees Williams.

by Eve Davies.

Literature is saturated with femme fatales: mysterious, seductive female characters whose charms ensnare men into their grasp. Her overt sexuality is her chief weapon, greed is her underlying desire, and her fate is bleak, without redemption. It’s a misogynistic archetype; some would say a product of the male crime writer’s anxiety about his diminished standing in the literary landscape. To name a few, there’s Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, Acrasia in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s The Misery. The femme fatale alludes to mythic figures such as Medusa and is a pillar of literary noir. Two of the greatest femme fatales of the 21st century are inevitably Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy of his Nordic noir Millennium trilogy; and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Amy Dunne, an attractive heroine who plots revenge against her husband’s patriarchy. 

Although Lisbeth is seven years Amy’s senior, Amy is a much more traditional representation of the femme fatale. She uses her sexuality and femininity to annihilate her husband, whereas Lisbeth works alongside her male counterpart – Journalist Mikael Blomkvist – to help him in the investigation following the disappearance of a child of the Vanger dynasty, rather than destroy him. 

Amy is a glamorous wife to former NYC writer Nick Dunne. As a couple, they present a portrait of blissful marriage, but their marriage soon turns disastrous when, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing and Nick becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. Amy clashes with the ‘Angel in the House’ figure and is dissatisfied with married life. Therefore, she forges her own disappearance and carefully places Nick in the limelight of suspect. She is destined to have him prosecuted for her murder, presenting her as a predator to the hapless man, which fulfils her role as femme fatale. 

Amy defines herself as a ‘cool girl’: ‘a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping, who plays video games and likes anal sex and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because cool girls are above all hot.’ One could consider this a modern definition of the femme fatale – a woman who revels in male approval by sexualising herself whenever she comes into a man’s line of sight. 

Wanting to be adored and sympathised after faking her disappearance, Amy commands attention, positioning herself as the damsel in distress who has been endlessly mistreated. Her diary, which holds accounts of her husband’s violent temper and occasional bouts of abuse, is her main plotting device here. She also uses her maternal capacity to elicit sympathy, faking pregnancy by using the urine of a neighbour, who she befriends for this purpose. Clearly, Amy is not afraid of utilising anyone around her to carry out her plan. This deceitful aspect of her character is common of the femme fatale. Through the novel and David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation, we witness the trajectory of Amy Dunne from the loving wife and Ivy League scholar to a merciless and vengeful femme fatale who brutally ransacks her husband.

Although Lisbeth Salander shows many symptoms of the trope – she rejects domestic femininity, living a life on the outskirts of society – she is a femme fatale with a modern twist, redefining the archetype in line with contemporary culture. Like Amy, Lisbeth refuses to partake in the traditional ‘domestic goddess’ ideology and is instead a work-focussed, free-spirited woman who tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society, or the law. But, she subverts the typical femme fatale stereotype, using her intelligence and physical strength to help Mikael in the investigation rather than obliterate him. The balance between Lisbeth and Mikael in terms of work capacity invites readers to consider the evolution of the femme fatale in Noir.

The titular character of the novel, and gothic heroine of the 2011 film adaptation, also directed by David Fincher, is described as ‘an information junkie with a delinquent child’s take on morals and ethics.’ Lisbeth, played by Rooney Mara – who perfectly fits Lisbeth’s leather and rocks her jet-black mohawk – in Fincher’s film, is a reserved and taciturn character, accustomed to a solitary life and overworking brain. The dark aura that surrounds her makes her all the more intriguing. She has ‘set things up to live as a recluse.’ She is ‘perfectly content as long as people le[ave] her in peace.’ Her greatest fear is breaking the emotional scaffolding she has built around herself. Therefore, the uncontrollable desire she feels for Mikael frightens her. While intricately and intimately searching through the nooks and crannies of Hedestad Island, Mikael and Lisbeth develop ‘a connection as addictive as heroin.’ Being such an introverted person, alien to all kinds of love and affection, Lisbeth is afraid of the hold this will have upon her: ‘she came to a terrifying realisation. She had no idea how it had happened or how she was supposed to cope with it. She was in love for the first time in her life.’  

Both Amy and Lisbeth are highly intelligent women, critical thinkers with high career prospects: Amy is a writer in NYC backed by a Harvard degree and Lisbeth is a security specialist working for Milton Security’s private investigation division. It is conventional for the femme fatale to use her intellect, brains and beauty to her cunning advantage. We witness Amy doing just that. But Lisbeth is a more complex femme fatale. While she uses her intelligence to sabotage her rapist guardian, who is undeniably deserving of all the torture that greets him, she also uses it to save Blomkvist when he is in the murderous hands of Martin Vanger. Therefore, we see Lisbeth use her femme fatale characteristics in a rational and reasoned way.

Another thing in common is their tumultuous pasts- usually, what shapes the femme fatale into the heartless being she is. Since childhood, Amy has been put under immense pressure by her parents who use her as inspiration for their children’s book series entitled Amazing Amy. Undoubtedly, this pressure has impacted her psychological state leading her to the damaged femme fatale she is. On the other hand, Lisbeth is the victim of sexual abuse, physical and emotional violence, and financial threats issued by her guardian Nils Bjurman. He is the second guardian we hear of signalling a disruptive and unstable childhood which has created her impassive, dispassionate character. In this sense, Lisbeth is similar to femme fatales in other Scandi-noir texts – for example, Saga in the 2011 TV series The Bridge.  

Amy and Lisbeth transgress societal norms with their independent, smart, and menacing actions. In Amy’s case, these actions bring about the downfall of her marriage and in Lisbeth’s case, they make drastic breakthroughs in the central investigation. They represent the modern defining characteristics of the femme fatale: intellect, independence, and otherness.