The contemporary femme fatale is a figure who looms large in pop culture. Often interacting with her subjects much like a bait-and-switch (The bait? “I’m weak and need you and your love.” The switch? “Haha just kidding you’re a weak little boy and I’m going to use my body to destroy you.”), the concept of the femme fatale is centered on an intensely focused, self-interested antihero that you can’t help rooting for. From ancient hieroglyphics to medieval mythology, the femme fatale has existed for all of history. In the world of cinema, representations of the femme fatale played a crucial role in changing representations of women on screen. No longer beacons of truth and purity, films like the classic Double Indemnity and the contemporary Gone Girl highlighted that it was revolutionary for a woman to be a villain—and control the direction of her own future.
In Red Sparrow, the new the American spy thriller directed by Francis Lawrence and featuring two-time Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence, we get a rare glimpse at a femme fatale as the protagonist rather than the villain. Lawrence, playing Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova, departs from the stereotype that powerful women are on a singular mission to destroy men. Instead, Red Sparrow presents Egorova as a complex character who uses the tools available to her to get ahead. The film sheds light on the often hidden, unsavoury elements of female empowerment, like questioning your own beliefs, battling the pressure to appear unbreakable, and balancing personal responsibilities—all the while highlighting that personal challenges can yield triumphant results.
The film is directed by Francis Lawrence, who has been empowering women under the radar for years
Before you saw The Hunger Games, you likely saw some of Francis Lawrence’s most popular and influential work. And I don’t mean Water for Elephants. Francis Lawrence has been a staple in the music-video industry for decades. Some his most famous works include such generation-defining videos as Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Part 1,” The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” Britney Spears’s “I’m A Slave 4 U,” and most importantly, Beyoncé’s legendary music video for “Run the World (Girls).”
What these videos share are full-body shots of women that use high angles to put the female subjects in positions of power. The first shot in the trailer for Red Sparrow is of Jennifer Lawrence’s entire body as she nervously sits on the edge of a bed sipping a drink in a stunning red dress. Any sensual shot of her in the trailer almost always presents her entire body, and when she’s naked, it’s because she’s in what appears to be a knife fight in the shower. When someone in the trailer says, “take off your clothes,” we never see it. Even though the film might explore these moments further, these preliminary glimpses remain sexy without being exploitative.
The film’s protagonist Dominika Egorova showcases that power often comes with sacrifice
In the trailer, Lawrence’s character tells us the film’s conceit. “They gave me a choice: die or become a sparrow.” We quickly learn that “sparrows” are elite, sexy spies who are trained to get close to their victims and do anything and everything to manipulate them into submission. While it may appear that Egorova is in a position of power, she is ultimately under the control of her employer. Struggling to provide medical care for her mother, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and falls into a life of secrets and loneliness, controlling others but totally at the mercy of her bosses.
I know I’m not a super spy, but I think that many, many women find themselves in Dominika’s position at one time or another. Whether that woman is experiencing harassment at work and fears reporting it, hates her job but must stay because she needs benefits, or she’s the primary breadwinner in her family, Dominika’s struggle for control and freedom is something that parallels the ordinary reality of being a woman in the workforce. In so many ways, Egorova is the ultimate femme fatale, but it’s not necessarily a life she chose for herself. More so, a decision she made in order to provide for her family and stay alive.
The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, who described working on the film as empowering
Jennifer Lawrence is one of American cinema’s most recognizable and bankable stars. She’s also incredibly outspoken. Whether she’s falling at the Oscars or advocating for wage equality, it’s impossible not to notice her. When she had her private photos hacked, they spread across the internet like wildfire. Rather than apologizing, Lawrence called out the people who looked at the photos. “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation … It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change,” she told Vanity Fair in the wake of the photos’ publication.
Those words have echoed in my head since it felt like one of the few instances when a famous young woman came out strong (and expressed little remorse) for taking nude photos. In her response, Lawrence displayed incredible vulnerability while remaining unwavering in her beliefs. In an interview with Oprah in The Hollywood Reporter she explained her intentions around making Red Sparrow: “[Red Sparrow] was sexual, and I haven’t done anything sexy or sexual. I’ve been afraid of that since 2014, when I got my pictures hacked. I just thought, I’ll never do that again. I’ll never share that part of myself ever since it got shared against my will.” And then when I said yes to Red Sparrow, I felt I was taking something back.”
Red Sparrow opens nationwide March 2nd.