Femme Fatale | Brian De Palma, 2002
Ophelia | John Everett Millais, 1851-1852 (cropped)
In Hamlet, Ophelia’s death is described in vivid detail but not witnessed first-hand. As Queen Gertrude tells Laertes, Ophelia is said to have climbed a tree overhanging a river only for the branch to snap, causing her to fall into the water and float downstream, the weight of her wet clothes finally dragging her below the surface. Shakespeare presents us with an account of events, the details of which suggest that Ophelia's death was either witnessed but not intervened upon, or the narrative of it has been pieced together from assumptions based on clues found after the fact. We're also presented with a woman’s body, identified, buried and mourned as Ophelia. We have to assume that Ophelia drowned by accident because there’s nothing to prove that this recounted tale of events is false. All that matters is that she died. The play goes on. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, his most famous work, is a depiction of this description. The body of Ophelia floats downstream accompanied by daisy-chains, her clothes billowing in the water and her face contorted in despair. A visual representation of a described death. Millais can’t know the truth of what happened to Ophelia as it is never witnessed in the play, only repeated third, fourth, fifth-hand. All he has is the account. The perception of events is visualised and immortalised on canvas. An image to prove the words.
During a very brief moment in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, part of a poster for an art exhibition is glimpsed as a labourer removes it from a billboard in a Parisian square. The same poster is seen later on a different billboard in a different part of town. It appears to include a copy of Millais’s Ophelia superimposed upon a different painting, depicting a large clock tower with its hands showing the time as 3:33, a time shared by all analogue clock-faces in this film. Millais’s work, however, is no longer exactly as he painted it. Instead, it depicts the face of the actress Rebecca Romijn, or, presumably, Laure, or even Lily, her character(s) in the film, in the place of Millais's original Ophelia. Alongside her is the same daisy-chain that Millais painted, and she is reclined in the same position, wearing the same dress, with the same reeds by her head and the same swirl of red hair below the surface of the water. Her expression, however, is different. Laure is relaxed and carefree, while Millais paints anguish on his Ophelia. Laure is dreaming, far from the imminent and inevitable death known to Ophelia, while asleep in a bathtub in a different reality. This is her dreamed future, featuring only faces from her past: strangers, enemies, lovers. "I put the clues together and I know what happened," says Nicolas, a photographer caught up in it all, but he has no idea. It's all too perfect, too easy, too reliant on chance and deja vu — it's unreal, but only in hindsight. In the moment, it's taken at face value. A float downstream, a constructed chain of events. Laure is Queen Gertrude trying to pass as Ophelia, fully in control of the narrative while presenting herself as a victim of it. A perfect plan executed faultlessly. A dream masquerading as an unquestioned truth. The play goes on.