If SS Jerome or Ambrose or Augustine or any of the grim Fathers had been watching television in spring this year, they wouldn't have had much trouble seeing Marlene Dietrich for what she was. Those lids, those lips, that pillowy mink, those sidelong glances, those shimmering legs and - above all - that voice, would have rendered her lightly accented modern English as plain as the Latin of the Mass to the patriarchs and their friends and forerunners in the penitential Thebaid. The world, the flesh and the devil embodied in a woman, and speaking in a woman's voice: the siren incarnate against whom you have to plug your ears or else, like Adam, you will feel the plunge as you fall. It is odd how wholeheartedly women have given themselves to playing this part - to believing it, too. Or perhaps it's not all that odd: the femme fatale offers more opportunities than several of the other sacrificial parts in the repertoire. But it is remarkable how the constituent elements of the contemporary fatal woman, the stories that underpin her charms, as well as the ornaments she assumes, match the fulminations of two thousand years ago against the counterfeit of women's fascination and the seductions of their tongues.
LRB 20 August 1992 | PDF Download