14th FEMME FATALE
Today, my focus is on French actress Simone Simon, perhaps best known to genre fans as Irena Dubrovna in Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People.
Simon’s career began in much the way we are led to believe fairytale Hollywood stories do – the aspiring fashion designer was spotted in a restaurant, plucked from obscurity and established herself as one of France’s hottest stars in no time at all.
By 1935, Simon was in Hollywood, thrust into the studio system. Unfortunately, Tinseltown fumbled the ball – allowing her only a couple of weeks of English lessons, thrust into the lead for a couple of pictures, only to be replaced by other actresses at the last minute. Pushed and pulled by a system that did not understand what had made her so popular in France, she was a square peg in a round hole, and returned to France in 1938 as various stories of temperamental behaviour did the rounds in Hollywood.
Simon’s star began to shine once more in France, with starring roles in the Jean Renoir films La Bete Humaine (1938), and Love Cavalcade (1940).
So why femme fatale?
Well, it was upon Simon’s second attempt at a Hollywood career that she landed the role of Irena Dubrovna in writer-producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), and it’s follow up The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir Robert Wise). The haunting tale of Irena (based on producer Val Lewton’s own short story) gave a tragic study in irreconcilable sexual otherness and evoked the difficulties faced by foreign born immigrants, and is perhaps both Lewton and Tourneur’s most celebrated film (certainly, Cat People has gained a cult status, even earning a well-intentioned remake by Hollywood prodigal son Paul Schrader in 1982. A melodrama not short on horror set pieces, it features a pool sequence that inspired Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria (1977), and is the first film to link horror and sexuality, a trope so richly celebrated in horror, found in genre movies as diverse as Alien (1979, dir Ridley Scott) and It Follows (2015, dir David Robert Mitchell) and everywhere inbetween.
The first film drips with an ominous sexual danger. Irena is an immigrant who represses her desires because she believes they will lead her to kill – indeed she never consummates her marriage with her American everyman husband Oliver, such is her deeply held belief that awakening her passion could turn her into a panther. Simon’s performance is excellent – she portrays her superstitions with such conviction that we believe them too…we soon become terrified, both for her and of her.
We know from the outset that Irena’s is a tragic tale, and yet her vulnerability keeps us hoping for a happy ending where we know there cannot be one. She is presented as femme fatale, but (unusual for such a character in such an era) is a far more complex and relatable character than the hard-nosed, one note femmes that populate most film noir. In a horror melodrama that straddles the line between horror, psychosexual thriller and noir, Simon’s Irena is a fantastic performance that still holds up today.
Cat People was such an interesting and original movie that it earned itself a sequel (believe it or not, in the 1940s a horror sequel was an unlikely prospect. Universal Studios managed several movies with each of their pantheon of Monsters, but the popularity of those movies was winding down by the time RKO and Val Lewton began churning out their spooky celluloid stories). Curse of the Cat People sees Kent Smith and Jane Randolph (the first movie’s hero and love interest) living a happy life in the country with their imaginative but odd daughter Amy (Ann Carter, in a spellbinding role that often upstages the adult actors in the film). Amy happens upon an “imaginary playmate” – none other than Simone Simon, returning as the spectre of tragic Irena.
Where Cat People was a psychosexual melodrama, its sequel takes the form of a fairy tale of sorts, but one steeped in psychology and realism. Throughout the film, we do not know if Irena is a ghost, or a figment of Amy’s imagination, summoned from the tales of her father’s dead former bride that Amy has no doubt been subjected to or overheard. Simon’s performance as Irena is the beating heart of the movie, as she moves from tragic femme fatale to fairy godmother of sorts, a safe space for Amy to play, to ponder life, to grow and mature away from her overbearing father. Here, Irena’s presence is steeped in the gothic – the performance would not look out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro movie, and has no doubt inspired a couple.
Unfortunately, these films did not lead to greater success for Simon. She appeared once more for RKO, in Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s drama Mademoiselle Fifi, but eventually returned to France, where her film appearances were few and far between until her final film appearance in 1973.
Despite her never quite becoming that shining star that her talent and her looks suggested she was destined for, Simone Simon managed not one, but two unforgettable (and very different) performances of the same character, in a pair of horror melodramas that have influenced filmmakers ever since.