A Not So Fatal Femme Fatale: Experimenting with the Norms of Film Noir in THE DEEP END

6 April 2014

Film noir, the highly successful style of filmmaking which peaked in the 1940s, focuses on crime, corruption, and a cynical look at humanity.  These key thematic elements are only part of what a standard noir is made of.  Speaking to genre, film noirs also tend to be thrillers, crime dramas, or gangster films. Moreover, and to get more existential, noirs often explore the isolation of humanity, and, conversely, the claustrophobic nature of humanity’s limited existence, which ultimate points to an unbalanced society/social structure.  As far as narratives go, film noirs are often set in urban areas, like major cities, which include, architecturally speaking, juxtapositions in size, shadows, and have plenty of back alleys for dirty dealing.  This set factor connects with the quintessential lighting of a noir, which is low-key, emphasizing shadow.  Also, noirs tend to break nonlinear storytelling by relying on flashbacks.  Jazz music is often a part of a standard noir, setting the mood from the audible perspective.

Most importantly, there is always an antihero; a fraudulent man, who, somehow, gets involved with the underbelly of humanity, but, thankfully, has a moral compass.  Unlike the femme fatale, the sexy female character of a noir, who instigates corruption, motivates the antiheroes wrongdoing, and often completely lacks morals.

Unquestionably, Scott Mcgehee and David Siegel’s The Deep End (2001) is a modern-day interpretation of film noir.  Although it is set in modern day, The Deep End is in a thriller about how far a mother will go to protect her child.  Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), her three children, and her father-in-law live in Lake Tahoe City while Margaret’s husband, presumed to be in the navy, is away at sea.  The Hall’s eldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), gets into a relationship with an older man named Darby (Josh Lucas), a user who owns a Reno nightclub.  Finding out about their relationships, Margaret pleads with Darby to leave Beau alone, but Darby is so unaffected by Margaret’s plea he comes to Tahoe one night to see Beau.  That night, in the Hall’s boathouse, Beau and Darby argue.  As Beau tires to walk away from the fight, Darby falls through the boathouse dock’s rail, killing him.  The next morning, Margaret finds Darby’s body and immediately assumes Beau killed Darby, so she covers the crime up. Although the audience knows Darby’s death was an accident, both mother and son assume the other committed murder.  And so, when a strange man, Al (Goran Visnjic), appears on their Lake Tahoe doorstep to blackmail the Halls about Beau’s relationship with Darby, as well as Darby’s death, the limits Margaret will go to protect her family are tested.

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Clearly the film is a cynical thriller revolving around a violent death.  In part, the film explores how the main characters, particularly Margaret, quickly descend into corruption once they are exposed to the underbelly of society.  The film uses flashbacks, breaking a linear narrative structure.  The Deep End also repeatedly sets the mood with jazz music (via Beau’s trumpet playing), and experiments with low-key lighting by frequently washing dramatic and tense moments in blue shadows, an incredibly significant color to The Deep End.  All these elements are standard noir.

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Yet, The Deep End is far from a typical film noir.  In fact, The Deep End subverts as many norms of noir as it adheres to.  For example, although Reno plays a part in the film, The Deep End keeps nearly all of its action in the quiet, secluded town of Lake Tahoe City. This affluent, scenic setting is far from a standard noir’s urban location.  And, while The Deep End finds ways into dark, confined spaces at the Hall’s Tahoe estate, such as the dimly lit, cramped boathouse, many of the grimmest and tense moments refuse this confined, dark location, and are, instead, set in open spaces and bright sun.  Specifically, when Margaret finds Darby’s body on the shore, it is a beautiful, sunny morning.  Margaret pulls an anchor out of Darby’s chest, drags his body into a dingy, and dumps him into the lake in open, bright space. This example is a clear slant on the expected noir approach, pointing out that, although the film adheres to noir standards, The Deep End also subverts norms of noir.

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Another striking defiance of noir standards is the film’s treatment of its antihero and femme fatale characters.  It seems the film makes an alteration from antihero to antiheroine, similar to what Mildred Pierce tried to accomplish years ago.  The Deep End is led by a female character, Margaret, whose seemingly strong moral compass is challenged because she mistakes her son for a murderer.  Margaret is the character that, in the opening shot of the film, enters into the underbelly of humanity (when she enters “The Deep End,” Darby’s Reno nightclub).  Although Margaret does not kill anyone, she conceals a murder, hiding Darby’s body and destroying all the evidence (she knows of) that connects Darby to her son, Beau.  It appears Margaret is the antiheroine of The Deep End, which presents a complication…

With Margaret as the antiheroine, and only woman, who is the femme fatale?  The easy answer would be The Deep End has no femme fatale, but that is actually not the case.  Once Al enters the film, as the blackmailer sent to extort money from the Halls, it becomes clear Margaret was never the antiheroine; Al is the antihero.  But, if Al is the antihero, what is Margaret’s role?  Turns out, Margaret is the femme fatale of The Deep End, and, completely subverting noir norms, this film tells its story from the femme fatale’s perspective.

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Noirs are traditionally the antihero’s story, but not in The Deep End.  The film does not even introduce Al right away.  Instead the film spends time redefining how viewers should see the femme fatale, if the story is told from her perspective.  The audience views Margaret as mother, wife, and homemaker.  Importantly, she is not sexualized (or hyper sexualized) as most femme fatales are.  Yet, once Al enters, Margaret’s appearance changes; she wears a striking red coat, causing her son to say, “You look nice,” finally allowing the audience to see Margaret as femme fatale.

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Because the film is the femme fatale’s story, The Deep End complete redefines a woman’s role on noir, with, perhaps, the most striking redefinition occurring in the film’s conclusion, which is more forgiving to the femme fatale than traditional film noirs.  In the end of The Deep End, the antihero dies—because of his relationship with the femme fatale—but the femme fatale survives.  In fact, with the phone call in the film’s conclusion, the film suggests the Halls completely recuperate, with Margaret and her family starting fresh.

Even with so many adherences to noir norms, The Deep End challenges film noir standards by telling the story from the femme fatale’s point of view.  In typical film noir, the femme fatale is, basically, evil incarnate.  She is the Lady Macbeth, the most morally damaged character who perpetuates corruption and wrongdoing.  Using her feminine wiles, she is typically punished in the end for her attempt to assert power and control men.  Margaret is a refreshing re-visioning of the cliché femme fatale and a stronger, more dimensional female character that often captured on film.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 06/04/2014.

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