Femme Fatale or Psychopath?

The following article is presented for entertainment puproses. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject.

It’s Wild-Card Wednesday again.  You never know what you’ll get on Wednesdays.  It’s like going to a covered-dish dinner.  So let’s peel back the foil and see what we’ve got here.

Is Sarah Bernhardt’s Self Portrait the essence of a femme fatale?

The femme fatale is an archetype of literature and art.  She has the seemingly supernatural ability to hold her lovers in a thrall of irresistible desire.  This desire can lead them down paths that cause them both physical and financial ruin.

Historically, the femme fatale is seen in culture, folklore and myth.  The earliest archetypes include Mohini, Lilith, Delilah, Salome, Jezebel, and the Sirens.

Mohini is the divine femme fatale of Hindu mythology

The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats (“La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “Lamia”).  This period also saw the rise of the gothic novel.  The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis featured a character named Matilda who became the blueprint for later femmes fatales.

The archetype showed up as a vampire in both Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (as the Brides of Dracula).  The Marquis de Sade was so impressed with the femme fatale archetype that he wrote Juliette.  Juliette is possibly the first known instance of the femme fatale triumphing over her prey.

The Marquis de Sade

Cut to the early years of the twentieth century.  The femme fatale was portrayed as emotional vampire who sucked the prosperity, independence, and virility from her victims.  The term vamp emerged during this era.  An example of this new femme fatale is Theda Bara in A Fool There Was.

Fun Factoid: A Fool There Was was based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire.”

The archetype flourished again in the film noir era of the 1940s and 1950s.  Examples include: Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944); Cora (played by Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); and Kathie Moffat (played by Jane Greer) in Out of the Past.

Fun Factoid:  Double Indemnity was remade in 1973.  The Postman Always Rings twice was remade in 1981 and starred Jack Nicholson. Both were based on novels by James M. Cain.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past

Now we get to psychopathy.  The Psychopathy Checklist, which was authored by Robert Hare, is commonly used assess psychopathy.  It also seems to describe a femme fatale to a tee.

Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer

Some of the items on this list:

  • Superficial charm
  • Cunning/Manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Irresponsibility
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Criminal versatility

Psychopaths lack empthy.  They are unable to understand the emotions of other people–other than in an intellectual sense.  This allows the psychopath to commit grotesque acts and not be deterred by a victim’s reaction.

The psychopath does not experience fear the same way normal people do and makes an excellent risk taker.  They don’t tremble.  They don’t lose control.  They can still think, even in a situation that would have most of us beyond thinking.

These smooth charmers and consummate liars do whatever they want and sleep like a baby at night.  They’re unable to care about or comprehend the havoc left in their wake.  In my limited experience, by the time you realize what’s going on, it’s too late.

Bridget Gregory (played by Linda Fiorentino) in the neo-noir film The Last Seduction (1994) is an example of the modern  femme fatale.   The Last Seduction uses the Marquis de Sade’s model of the triumphant femme fatale.  Let’s see how many times Bridget Gregory hits the psychopath checklist.

The camera focuses in on Bridget as she supervises phone sales of collectible coins. She pushes her underlings to sell more; they succeed.  Then,  she tries to trick one of them into taking the ostensibly worthless coins as a reward (cunning).

At the end of the workday, Bridget goes home to hubby.  Bridget and her husband (Matthew Modine) have pulled off a drug deal and collected $700,000 (criminal versatility).  Bridget manipulates her husband into striking her and takes off with the money while he’s in the shower.

She finds herself in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, where she seduces a naive man she meets at a bar (promiscuity).  We quickly learn Bridget left her husband to fend off loan sharks from whom they borrowed $100,00o finance their drug deal (irresponsibility, lack of remorse, criminal versatility).

Bridget, on advice from her lawyer, decides to hide out in the sticks. By the way, the lawyer seems to know Bridget very, very well.  He hints that she’s done this sort of thing a good bit (short term marital relationships, parasitic lifestyle).

Bridget charms her way into a job with a story about being the victim of spousal abuse (pathological lying).  She discovers her one night stand from the bar works for the same company.  Bridget sets about manipulating him to do her bidding–which is less than legal (criminal versatility, parasitic lifestyle).

This is just the first first 30–45 minutes of The Last Seduction, so please do watch it if you get the chance.  It’s one of the stars of the neo noir genre.  You can find The Last Seduction at Amazon and probably Netflix.  Here’s the preview:

The quality is terrible, but it was the best video I could find that supported embedding. If you’d like to see a better quality version of the trailer, click here.


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