A beautiful blonde woman dances in the rain before a younger man, with peals of rapturous laughter and a swiveling of her hips. Is she doing this because she actually likes dancing in the rain, or for the sake of his seduction? In both Lee Daniel’s new film “The Paperboy” and Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” 2012 New York Film Festival Gala Tribute recipient Nicole Kidman turns in brilliant performances as femmes fatales, dancing in the rain in each film before an admirer.
In “The Paperboy,” Kidman is Charlotte Bless, a woman who is obsessed with writing letters to inmates. She hits it off with a prisoner on death row, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), and enlists the aid of Miami reporters Ward and Yardley (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) to cover his story in hopes of getting him released. She uses her sexuality to get Hillary’s case noticed, and instantly gets herself noticed by Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron).
Kidman’s character in “To Die For” is much more conniving. She plays Suzanne Stone, a Barbara Walters wannabe fixated on becoming a television celebrity. She seduces and marries restaurant owner Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), but when she realizes his dreams don’t exactly align with hers, she seduces a high school student named Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) and convinces him and his two friends to kill her husband.
In both films, Kidman’s femmes fatales use their sexuality as a means of survival, and Kidman tailors the physicality of each character to match their ultimate goals. In “The Paperboy,” Charlotte uses sexuality in a much more passive sense in order to curry favor with others. In “To Die For,” Suzanne uses her sexuality more actively, as a ploy to control others and mastermind schemes.
Kidman’s performance as a femme fatale has morphed significantly over the course of the seventeen years between films. In each, the character’s physicality plays a major part in how she ensnares her male targets. In “To Die For,” Suzanne’s methodical construction of her physical appearance is yet another important part of her plan for media domination, and she never tires of speaking in exacting, practiced language. At the film’s start, she has long blonde hair and wears tighter, more suggestive clothing — the better to seduce her husband-to-be in a bar. As she becomes more focused on becoming a television star, she cuts her hair to a conservative blonde bob and wears colorful skirt suits, as if she’s play-acting the role of the innocent-looking TV anchor. Noticing that Jimmy is aroused by this “clean” appearance, she maintains it as she seduces him, and adds the components of ass-hugging pants and mini-dresses, becoming a pin-up version of herself.
In “The Paperboy,” Kidman’s femme fatale is decidedly not “clean.” Here Kidman channels a grittier, more explicit form of sexuality. Hoping to marry Hillary, she dresses like the prisoner’s wet dream: skintight shiny dresses and high heels, with her hair bleached out and teased up. When she wears pants to visit Hillary one day, he freaks out because “men wear pants.” In her dresses, nothing is left to the imagination, and that is presumably the idea.
Unlike the refined affectations of Suzanne, Charlotte dumbs herself down for male consumption. She speaks in an exaggerated Southern drawl, mostly about topics of a sexual nature. Her appearance seems fearless, but hypersexualization is her only asset. Suzanne, however, conveys a more subtle sexuality and plays the victim, tricking her men into thinking that they are in charge. Charlotte explains her actions to Jack by telling him that “Fucking a man is the most natural thing in the world.” Without sex, Charlotte thinks herself to be completely disenfranchised.
In addition to strategizing their physical appearances and mannerisms, these femmes fatales also strategize their sexual advances. In “To Die For,” Suzanne propels her goals with the threat of a new sexual alliance. When Jimmy starts to get cold feet about killing her husband, she casually mentions to him that perhaps his friend Russell (Casey Affleck) is “man enough” to do it. This sets Jimmy into a jealous fury, the turning point in his decision to go through with the murder at Suzanne’s bidding. Likewise, in “The Paperboy,” Charlotte realizes that Ward is a homosexual, and therefore it is in her best interests to closely align herself with Yardley, a potential target for her feminine wiles.
While Kidman’s Charlotte and Suzanne are considered femmes fatales, in that they both ensnare men at will and thereby bring them to treacherous situations, their methods are quite different. Charlotte plays up her role as a passive human Barbie whereas Suzanne more openly turns the screws. Take their rain dances, for instance. Suzanne dances for Jimmy with the premeditated intent of making him fall for her, while Charlotte dances with Jack because sexuality is all she has and when she hears the music, she has no other choice but to give him what she knows he wants. “To Die For” and “The Paperboy” ultimately show the breadth of work that Kidman is capable of — how she can take a highly sexualized femme fatale and create such completely different, multi-layered characters.
Caitlin Hughes graduated Tisch with an MA in Cinema Studies, and since went on to do various stuff in film, ranging from non-profit to PR to film programming. When not watching movies or TV, she enjoys perfecting the art of karaoke, dining out, being a so-so yogi, and trolling around Park Slope. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.