This week I went to an exhibition of Gustave Moreau’s work on the theme of the femme fatale. ‘Here she comes, you’d better watch your step…’ Yes it’s nigh impossible to shrug off that Velvet Underground song whenever the words ‘femme fatale’ come into your orbit, and the sound of that haunting yet faintly comic German accent of Nico’s.…’She’s-going-to-break-your-heart-in-two. It’s true’. Let’s get it out of your system so we can move on.
Gustave was painting ‘fatal women’ during the 19th Century when the idea of the dangerous seductress was wedded to the term ‘femme fatale’. Fast forward to the ‘40s film noir era, and duplicitous women with toxic allure were turning up everywhere, accompanied by men rendered powerless by their charms. In the 1947 film ‘Dead Reckoning’, Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock, tries to save his buddy Johnny from lounge singer Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler with this line: ‘Johnny, why don’t you get rid of the grief you’ve got for that blonde, whoever she is? Every mile we go, you sweat worse with the same pain. Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?’ Read that last line again and again. I promise it’ll keep making you laugh.
In the ‘40s, if you were a femme fatale, you were usually beautiful, self-interested, unfaithful, scheming and venal. These days it seems a woman just has to wear red lipstick and be skilled at the art of the pick-up to earn the moniker. But if Gustave Moreau’s pantheon is anything to go by, the femme fatales of Biblical times, Greek mythology and Imperial Rome make modern-day and ‘40s ‘fatal women’ look like Doris Day.
Roman empress Messalina, wife of Claudius, when not persuading Claudius to bump off her children’s rivals to the throne – and anyone else who looked at her askance – was indulging her considerable sexual appetite. Supposedly, she had a competition with a prostitute as to who could take the most lovers in a single night: Messalina won with a score of 25. The story goes that Messalina rewarded Claudius’s tolerance of her murderous whims and cuckolding by scheming to have him killed so she could install her lover Silius as emperor. Unfortunately for Messalina, Claudius discovered the plot and ordered his soldiers to execute her. Messalina was decapitated in front of her mother.
Yes, she of the ‘dance of the seven veils’ – except that was just poetic license on Oscar Wilde’s part. Salome did perform a dance for her step-father King Herod that was so, um, moving, that he agreed to carry out any deed she suggested. Salome requested that the head of John the Baptist be removed from his neck and then be arranged just-so on a platter. Salome had been put up to this by her mother, Herodius, whom John publicly derided because she had previously been married to Herod’s half-brother. John really should have minded his own business.
The story of Delilah is one of those charming Biblical tales told to little children to deliver morality messages. In this case, the message is that women can’t be trusted. They will discover the source of a man’s strength and then studiously remove it, leaving the male weak and at the mercy of his enemies. Delilah, the traitorous hussy of this story, was lover to Samson, whose strength was such that he slayed an entire army with the jawbone of an ass. (Don’t you just love the Bible?). The Philistines offered Delilah cash to discover the secret to Samson’s strength, so while Samson was dozing in post-coital bliss, she whispered in his ear: ‘Samson, you’re so big and strong. Do you work out? Is it steroids? What’s your secret, honey?’ Samson replied. ‘Wha’? Oh. It’s all in the hair.’ Snip, snip. Samson woke with a short-back-and-sides and was blinded, then enslaved by the Philistines. As to whether Delilah bought shoes or a new donkey with the money she received, we will never know, as this part of the story was not recorded.
Actually, it’s generally agreed that the Sirens, described as bird-women or mermaids, weren’t bad as such, but they were fatal. Greek mythology has it that these bird-women/mermaids spent their days hanging out on an island singing with voices so seductive that passing sailors were ineluctably drawn to them, only for their ships to be smashed against the rocks. Moreau’s painting depicts the story of Odysseus, who wanted to hear the Sirens’ song without coming to harm, so had his men plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the ship’s mast. On hearing the Sirens’ song, Odysseus begged his sailors to untie him but as he’d previously ordered them not to do this and they couldn’t hear him anyway, they ignored him, choosing instead to eat lunch (including Odysseus’s share) and wolf-whistle at the Sirens as they passed by.
Gustave Moreau and The Eternal Feminine is on at the National Gallery of Victoria until 10 April.