Cruella: Reinventing the Femme Fatale

May 27, 2021

Cruella de Vil, a character most widely known from the One Hundred and One Dalmatians animated film, is slated to be next on the docket of Disney’s list of stories retold – the film Cruella is slated to hit the big screen May 28, 2021. Although not strictly a retelling of the Disney film, it is set to explore the origin story of the villain, with Emma Stone portraying Cruella. That is the question though, isn’t it? Just who is Cruella? Why is it important that her story be told? The answer, as we will soon discover, lies in the archetype Cruella de Vil is a member of. One that, arguably, deserves some more fresh takes, this archetype being the femme fatale.

The Origins of the Archetype

Before we begin discussing how the femme fatale is being reinvented and why, it couldn’t hurt to unravel and better understand what a femme fatale is. As far as cinema is concerned, the FilmSchoolRejects observe that the archetype comes from film noirs around the time of the 1940s and 1950s. They go on to recognize the complexity of the femme fatale by attesting to their emotional realism. That what makes them such compelling characters is that they are willing to meet whatever ends they deem necessary to achieve their ambitions, but at the same time, contend with feelings and motivations that prove counter to those self same ambitions. In a way, they are somewhat contradictory in an oppositional sense. The way they are portrayed, they often have to compromise their comfort zone in order to reach their desired state of comfort and security. It is a layer of characterization that grounds them, making femme fatales feel very authentic and human despite being fictional in nature. 

Who is Cruella?

Like a good deal of the animated Disney films, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is not a property that is purely Disney’s. It is an adaptation of a book written in 1956 called “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith, from whom Walt Disney bought the rights to (Newsweek, 2021). What’s more, the book also provides greater insights into Cruella’s character, which hopefully the upcoming movie does well to lean into. For one, to show how extreme and over the top Cruella could be, the book notes that she “was expelled from primary school for drinking ink” (Newsweek, 2021). Now you might be wondering, “well why would a detail like that be important to include in the upcoming movie?” Unsettling as it sounds, it could be framed to show that she was always an outlier or a rebel of sorts. It could demonstrate just how far Cruella is willing to go to do what she wants to, or to underscore how comfortable she is being a deviant (despite the criticisms she might face). Such an act could in a way be likened to skinning dogs for their pelts, which is something she is certainly willing to do to create her perfect fur coat by the time the events of One Hundred and One Dalmatians takes place. Especially since both acts can be considered pretty taboo. Expanding on details like these would go a long way towards helping viewers that haven’t read the book, or viewers who just want to know more in general, what makes Cruella de Vil tick and how she developed to become the villain we know. 

Cruella Close up with writing

Why is this Reinvention Important?

So far, we’ve laid out how the femme fatale operates and how Cruella fits within that archetype. This now brings us to the crux of this discussion. Quite interestingly, an article by CinemaBlend offers a thought-provoking perspective on the upcoming film concerning Cruella. The article posits that Cruella is not necessarily a character that can be easily rehabilitated, as her endgame is perceived as being too vile. In a sense, this is not necessarily an untrue statement to make, but this is why reinventing the femme fatale is so important in this day and age. The femme fatale as an archetype has evolved in way that doesn’t just reinforce the male gaze. One can argue that it can now work towards celebrating women’s power as well as providing a platform to speak out against some of the injustices they are faced with. By telling the story of Cruella’s descent into villainy, the story can inform its viewers of a couple of key concepts. For one, understanding where Cruella de Vil comes from as a character can reinforce the idea that being “evil” has more than one dimension to it. Seeing Cruella’s side of the story allows us as viewers to contemplate what allows evil to fester. Is it the way we treat people? How to what extent do our societal norms play into this process? Questions like these are what viewers should have in mind when engaging with the story the film has to tell. 

Albeit it will be twisted in a sense, Cruella’s turn to villainy could also represent a reclamation of her own personal power. Like we mentioned before, femme fatales are often faced with decisions that cause them to leave their comfort zone in order to attain the security they desire. What if turning into the brash and heinous character we know Cruella to be is the only way for her to enjoy the successes she strives to attain? This is why exploring the kinds of obstacles she faces before the events of One Hundred and One Dalmatians is so important. In addition, not only would Cruella’s character have a chance at rehabilitation, but the femme fatale as an archetype too. By making this movie, the femme fatale could do more than being a fear-inducing character that people are expected to root against. Instead, the archetype could be used to inform viewers of the challenges women face, and show that it is not impossible to overcome these challenges. Cruella releases in theaters on May 28th, 2021.

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