Q & A from The New York Public Library: The Femme Fatale
Atreus Books interviews author Joseph J. Gabriele about his new novel, crime fiction, and the enduring power of the femme fatale.
ATREUS: The femme fatale is without question one of the fascinating characters in literature and film—and as a number of reviewers have written, you’ve certainly given us an extraordinary femme fatale in Dangerous Illusions. What is it that inspired you to create such a character?
GABRIELE: The character of the femme fatale has always intrigued me. Femmes fatales are among the most provocative, complex, flawed, and morally ambiguous characters in fiction and drama. They force us to ask what drove them to take such actions, to commit such crimes, to do the unthinkable, the unspeakable. Since I was writing a novel of murder, theft, and betrayal, how could I resist the powerful allure of the femme fatale?
ATREUS: Now for a femme fatale definition. . . . How exactly would you define femme fatale?
GABRIELE: Seductress, siren, temptress, vamp. These are a few of the words that come to my mind when thinking of the meaning of femme fatale. Yet each seems to fall short in capturing the fatalism inherent in the phrase. Literally translated, femme fatale means ‘deadly woman’, ‘disastrous woman’, or ‘fatal woman’. However, Webster’s New World gives the definition of femme fatale more generally as ‘an alluring woman, especially one who leads men to their downfall or ruin.’
ATREUS: Today, the term femme fatale is virtually synonymous with noir fiction and film noir. Will you share with me some of your favorite femmes fatales from classic crime fiction or the silver screen?
GABRIELE: I must confess, many of my favorite femmes fatales in film noir—Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep, Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity—happen to be based on memorable characters created by some of the best crime writers, in this case Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. It’s always quite interesting to observe the transformation that occurs from book to screen.
As a tribute to some of the memorable portrayals of the femme fatale in cinema, I’ve created a gallery of a number of actors who have played unforgettable femmes fatales, or who I wish would be given the opportunity to play a great femme fatale.
ATREUS: Then are we to attribute your initial attraction to the femme fatale to the long relationship between crime fiction and film noir?
GABRIELE: My fascination with the femme fatale probably didn’t start with modern crime fiction and film noir. I’ve always believed the origins of the femme fatale can be traced back much further to some of the most compelling characters and archetypes in literature, mythology, religion, and art, from Lilith, Eve, and Salome to Helen of Troy, Clytmenestra, and Medea—and who can forget Lady Macbeth?
ATREUS: What do you think gives the femme fatale such enduring power?
GABRIELE: We are often left wondering what we would have done if we were in her position. Would we have done otherwise? Perhaps the femme fatale wasn’t entirely justified in her actions, but can we see why she might have been driven to do what she did? Can we understand how she dared to break the laws of god and man and ultimately shatter the most sacrosanct of taboos?
What would you do if your husband murdered—well, sacrificed—your daughter to launch his military campaign and then returned home from war in all his glory and plunder on the arm of a woman he had taken as a sex slave? Would you welcome him with open arms or ensnare him in a net and stab him through the heart with a dagger?
I will never forget watching these events unfold before my eyes at the Vivian Beaumont Theater during a production of Agamemnon at Lincoln Center. This was the dilemma Clytemnestra faced as she watched Agamemnon return home from the Trojan War. I watched Clytemnestra slay her husband, aided and abetted by her lover, and she became for me in that moment the quintessential femme fatale.
ATREUS: This sounds like an unforgettable production.
GABRIELE: Yes, and I experienced it in the midst of studying the Oresteia. It was a transformative event in my life. The extraordinary Priscilla Smith played Clytemnestra and a very young and very talented Diane Lane played Iphigenia. I remember the amphitheater seating unexpectedly parting, dramatically making way for Agamemnon as he returned home at the head of a triumphal parade, replete with fire and incense, the thunderous chanting of a Greek chorus, and the deafening drums of war. It was the convergence of classical literature, modern theater, and a classic femme fatale.
ATREUS: So, though you love the femme fatale in crime novels and film noir, you’ve been inspired by this iconic character in many other literary settings?
GABRIELE: Oh, yes. Whether in fiction, film, or drama, the past is colored with so many dynamic women who have changed the course of literature and the arts. I can’t imagine our world without the femme fatale.