There are two kinds of dangerous women in literary and cinematic tradition: seductresses and hags. The seductress, or femme fatale, bowls the hero over with her irresistible sexuality. She is Lola from Damn Yankees: whatever she wants, she gets, as the hero melts before her mighty estrogen, his erection delicately kept off-screen, but obvious to the subtext.
The hag is the Wicked Witch. She is the staple of Disney cartoons: Malificent Fig, Ursula, and Cruella DeVille. She horrifies, cackles, and controls.
One of my favorite trivia tidbits is that the original costume sketches for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz included sexy, vampy designs. As a culture, we have our evil women all muddled up; wicked witches can be vamps, and tramps can be hags, and the combination of beauty and power is highly suspect.
Ian Fleming had no real interest in the femme fatale. His beautiful women are largely powerless; damsels to be rescued, 'birds with wings down.' His evil women are hags; Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, both "toadlike," both hideous, both middle-aged. The literary Bond could not be overcome, or even endangered, by seduction, and when he slept with allies of the villain (Pussy Galore, Domino Vitale) it was a sign they were on the side of good. Indeed, the only Fleming character who could be typified as a femme fatale was Vesper Lynd, and she was as much a bird with a wing down as Domino or Tracy, and did her best to change sides after falling in love with Bond.
No, the evil seductress versus Bond is a product of the films, and begins with the first Eon film, Dr. No, in the person of Miss Taro. This character introduces the notion of combative sexuality to the Bond films; Bond dislikes, distrusts, and sleeps with her. Not what the rest of us would consider a healthy sex life! But Miss Taro sleeps with Bond only reluctantly, to keep him at her house, and their physical encounter is not a part of what makes her evil.
No, the first truly fatal femme is Fiona Volpe. She's a "wild thing." She bites. She drives fast, lives fast, kills fast, and sleeps with her victims for kicks. She starts with Francois Derval for an appetizer, and then moves on to our hero. She has one of my favorite Bond quotes, a quote that typifies the seductress: "But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one." When Fiona says this to Bond, we get a capsule sketch of her villainy; so very evil that she makes love with no intention whatsoever of being converted to the side of good.
In fact, Fiona has the same attitude towards sex with the enemy as Bond evinces with Miss Taro (and on and on throughout the films). But while Bond can make love to the enemy and remain heroic, for a woman to do the same makes her even more evil, in a woman, such calculated distinction between sex and affinity is bad bad bad. (Even Anya Amasova doesn't sleep with Bond until after they've ironed out their differences.)
She may be bad bad bad from the point of view of the underlying morality of the script, but for the audience, she's hot hot hot. Bad girls are more fun. (I don't think that's a particularly gendered statement; bad boys are more fun too.) For my money, Bond and Fiona in bed together; "You're like a wild thing, you ought to be in a cage," is the hottest love scene in the entire franchise.
The thing about Fiona's sex-villainy is that it's all in the subtext. She simply is both sexual and evil, in a way that makes the evil erotic, and makes the sex nasty. It's in the performance, not in the script. Her "heavenly choirs" speech separates her from women who tie their sexuality to their goodness, but that's as far as she goes-in words, that is.
The next movie, You Only Live Twice, notched it up, but the fans don't give the same accolades to Helga Brandt. Perhaps she is too overt. Still, she deserves mention as the first villainess to explicitly tie villainy to sexual perversion. Whereas Fiona seduces her victims because she likes killing and she likes sex, Helga does it because blending the two is her particular kink. I am absolutely blown away by the fact that Helga dresses up to torture Bond. Here, Bond also makes his agenda explicit, saying "The things I do for England." Aki thinks Bond would have nothing to do with that "horrible woman," but Aki is on the side of good, and doesn't understand the kind of sexuality that both Bond and our femmes fatale explore.
The next effort at notching up the sexual perversity comes in the rogue Bond film, Never Say Never Again. About half the time I see this movie, I absolutely adore Fatima Blush, the other half, I can't stand her. I can see what they're going for, an over-the-top erotic madness that titillates, amuses, and is also dangerous. She is, of course, the McClory version of Fiona Volpe, so the effort is to take Fiona's bad bad bad and make her more more more.
More what? More everything, of course. More sex-crazed, more vicious, more flamboyant, and worlds upon worlds of more crazy. So my appreciation depends on what I'm thinking about that day, my mood, what I had for breakfast, and perhaps what other Bond film I'd seen most recently. It's easy to sneer at the too over-the-top portrayal, at what is essentially a parody of a femme fatale assassin, especially as portrayed in her final scene. Demanding that Bond acknowledge her magnificent erotic prowess, she is destroyed by her vanity, leaving only impeccably stylish shoes behind.
And yet Fatima Blush is gleeful, exuberant, drunk with the power of her own sex-and-death brew, and she changes her clothes a lot. In a plodding movie, she is a bright and vibrant star.
We can look at this as a trajectory; a progress. We go from the slightly unwilling Miss Taro, to the boldly assertive Fiona, to the kinky Helga, and then to the crazy Fatima. Each is a bit more extreme, a bit more devouring, a bit more avaricious. Each amplifies the relationship between murder and female sexuality.
Which is where Xenia Onatopp comes in.
In some ways, Xenia dials it down from Fatima. She is over-the-top, but never a joke. Instead, she is the full expression of the marriage of sex and death; the villainess who has an orgasm when (and apparently only when) she kills.
Famke Janssen does a great job here. She gives Xenia a lustful, superior attitude. She is disdainful; of Bond, of her Admiral, even of Trevelyan. She is purely a thrill-seeker and has no interest in other motivations. Most importantly, she is the quintessence of the femme fatale; she is the vagina dentate, the roiling fear beneath wicked witches and sultry vamps, that feminine sensuality is a fanged and lethal danger that could devour (or strangle, or crush) the male.
She works in part because Natalya Simonova functions as her counterpart. Xenia guns down a roomful of computer operators while achieving climax; Natalya weeps in the aftermath. Xenia is aroused by Bond when she knows he will crash her train; Natalya softens to Bond when the danger is past.
There has been another deadly sexy woman in Bond films--Miranda Frost--and doubtless the future will bring more, but I doubt the blend of sex and death will ever be so perfectly expressed as with Xenia.
To me, there is a straight line between Fiona Volpe and Xenia Onatopp, a cool and entertaining commentary on the very notion of the femme fatale, and these two women are my favorite Bond villainesses.
Copyright ©2008 Deborah Lipp
|Deborah Lipp is the author of The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book. She has written about Bond for the New York Times, and posts her Bond essays regularly on Mania and CommanderBond.net. She is a moderator and essayist at Bond forums and travels the globe spreading the gospel of 007. Her entertaining and informative blog is named, as one might expect, The Ultimate James Bond Fan Blog.|
Contact the Author: DEBORAH LIPP|
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