The Devil With a Doctor’s Bag: Schreber as Femme Fatale in Dark City
So I started typing “femme fatale” in the title of this entry and nearly typed “femme fetal,” which just generates mental pictures that are wrong on so many levels. On a serious note, though… ever notice how Dark City manages to be a film noir that is missing a crucial trademark of the genre? I’ve heard it argued that this film has no femme fatale. That’s where I beg to disagree. Dark City has a femme fatale – the femme fatale just isn’t a woman, which is what causes the confusion. I’m willing to argue that Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) fills that role based on his actions and motivations, which place him in the position of the seductive, mysterious persona that holds power over the plot of the film.
|Not surprising that the poster doesn’t feature women.|
Why can’t we just pick a female character as the femme fatale? Thing is, we don’t have a strong female from which to choose. Really, we’re only introduced to four in the film: the wife involved in the memory experiment, Walenski’s wife, prostitute May (Melissa George), and adulterous wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly). The wife (who doesn’t really get a name) is on screen for approximately two minutes, and has as many lines; after this, we don’t see her again. Walenski’s wife is given an even shabbier treatment: she cries and has a door closed in her face, literally shutting her out of the action, making her a dead end as well. That leaves us with May and Emma, who could conceivably step up to the plate on this one, but do not. May is a prostitute, but she’s so nice and apple-pie that it barely registers that she’s a shameless hooker. Hell, May can’t even bring herself to swear, as she infamously utters, “Shoot,” when John (Rufus Sewell) leaves rather than letting loose a torrent of swearwords. This gives credence to the fact that she’s not really a hooker – it’s just her latest incarnation of the memory experiment. The same holds true for Emma, who has just as much chance of being the femme fatale based upon her circumstances of being the adulterous wife of John: she’s a lounge singer, she’s had an affair, and she is actively involved in trying to solve the mystery of her husband. Emma could easily have secrets stored and ulterior motives, but she doesn’t – her maini issue is the memory of an affair, which, it turns out, isn’t even true. At their cores, their deepest secrets are issues about their own psychological natures they don’t even realize: they are shells in which memories are implanted. They are not the same types of chameleons that are demanded of the genre: they blend in because someone else changes them, not because they have a need to satisfy within themselves.
|Even her dress is relatively neutral.|
Schreber is the one that fits the bill for the femme fatale. A femme fatale is a seductive woman who entrances the male characters into her plan, whether through sex or the promise of information. While no one wants to sleep with Schreber in this film, it’s clear that he’s the enigmatic piece of John’s mystery. Schreber doles out the missing information; he leads John through clues; he is the one that is sought out by the Strangers, Bumstead and John in order to achieve their quest for knowledge. The information he has is sought-after, which makes him a thing of questionable trust for the viewer because we don’t know which side of the coin he’s on. This quality, in essence, draws us in just as much as the other characters, making him a focal point for the collective of both participant and observer. We watch Schreber because we want to know what he knows, and we know that he knows everything. Adding to this aspect, Schreber also comes with a tortured backstory, one that fuels his revenge plot: he was forced to erase his own memories and become the slave to the Strangers, which is the catalyst to helping John when he sees the opportunity of an individual that could function outside of the corrupt rules. In true femme fatale form, Schreber is the antihero that is given the chance to do something heroic: he takes the chance and implants the memories with the knowledge of how to defeat the Strangers rather than the hive mind. This act of defiance redeems him because he’s able to overthrow the oppressive regime. This aspect of Schreber places him firmly into the role of the femme fatale: everyone is drawn to him, and he holds the key to helping the protagonist solve the mystery and right the wrongs.
|Hey there, sexy girlfriend.|
Therefore, the only logical conclusion to this film’s femme fatale issue is that Schreber is the one to assume the mantle. The women in this film have two things working against them: they do not have the screen time, nor are they afforded the traits of the typical femme fatale. These women are not even themselves, which means that they lack motivation necessary to completely fill that role. They do not have all of the ingredients to make the pie, and hence the pie caves in the center; structurally, it doesn’t have the proper composition to hold up. The women are so neutered that they are not allowed to expand as people – they are ideals and archetypes of the Strangers’ experiments at best, and they do not have the mental capacity ala John to evolve. Therefore, the only other option is to have Schraber function in this role. The man in the subservient role to the villains must take on the role of the woman in order to push the film noir ahead. While this doesn’t say very nice things about women – because at its core, the biological women are cogs in te machine rather than the givers of life or the bearers of change – it does try its best to fulfill the need of the genre. The women are used as props, whereas the femme fatale is an active agent of the story. Someone had to be the femme fatale in this one; it just happened to be Schreber.
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