Killing Eve’s Villanelle: The New Femme Fatale
By Samantha Baugh
If you have any access to BBC content and a pulse, you are probably watching the hit show Killing Eve. The show follows two women: Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) of MI6 and an assassin under the pseudonym of Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Eve jumps at the chance to hunt down Villanelle, and Villanelle’s ego grows at the idea that an entire department is dedicated just to finding her. The two women engage in a game of cat and mouse (as of season two, cat and cat) as their mutual obsession with each other only increases. It also serves as the latest phase of the decades-long evolution of the femme fatale.
When Comer was approached for the part of Villanelle, she was skeptical at first. In an interview for the CBS This Morning Podcast, Comer recalls that when she saw the word “assassin” she rolled her eyes thinking she was about to see the stereotype of high heels and sexy outfits. Instead, what she found was an assassin who works practically with a personality that is childish, horrifying, vain, hilarious, and human.
The term “femme fatale” originally was meant to strictly refer to an archetype of the film noir era in Hollywood. The archetype is always a woman who is attractive, seductive, and most importantly, the downfall of any man who dares get involved with her. The term has gone into broader application since the twentieth century, now applying to modern examples of villainous women such as Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. In the past, femme fatales rarely committed violence themselves, but the modern version is deadly literally and figuratively. Villanelle fits this archetype in that she is the recipient of Eve’s attraction and the catalyst to Eve getting more in touch with her dark side at the cost of losing relationships in her personal life.
The reinvention of the femme fatale in Killing Eve comes down to Villanelle’s personality. Like many classic film archetypes, the femme fatale was often witty with sharp sign offs every time one would exit a scene. Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not comes to mind.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Lines like the above are sometimes nonsensical, but often highly suggestive. Villanelle shares the femme fatale’s traditional sense of wit, but hers is more in the realm of silliness rather than sharp punch lines. She wears a beard to dress up like her handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia); she wears a flamboyant outfit to a psychological checkup; and most memorably after killing Eve’s best friend, Villanelle sends her a cheeky yet flirty note reading, “Sorry Baby x.”
Villanelle wears glamorous and eye-catching outfits because that is what she is genuinely interested in. Early on in the series, it is established that Villanelle very much likes spending her money on the finer things in life. In the beginning of the second season, Villanelle suffers quite a lot after being stripped of all her material possessions. Still, her look is quite distant from the stereotypical body-hugging leather suit or dramatic cocktail dress. Instead, on missions Villanelle wears practical gear. This sets Villanelle apart from other modern femme fatales because even when they commit heinous violent acts, it comes with the added bonus of sex appeal. The violence is fetishized.
The old-school femme fatale tantalizes the male hero as well as the audience, even with violence. It’s a sort of killing-him-with-kisses attitude. Her seduction, for viewing pleasure, is the action of a bad woman. Killing Eve pokes fun at this when Villanelle and Konstantin have this exchange:
“I had to use my tits!”
“You killed him with your tits?”
The pair giggles at the absurd idea. Villanelle is indeed a violent and morally bankrupt person, but nothing about her body or sexuality has anything to do with her negative qualities.
Villanelle works instinctively, but sometimes those instincts mean zipping herself in a suitcase and wearing a twelve-year old boy’s pajamas. Femme fatales, even if they ultimately fail, act like they always hold all the power. What makes Villanelle human, and admittedly sometimes sympathetic, are the moments where the audience sees her powerless or humiliated without being irrevocably stripped of her agency.
Lately, it seems as though when writers and directors try to avoid old tropes for female characters, they resort to opposite extreme and use feminist buzzwords to make it clear they are done with sexist clichés. The writers of Killing Eve, however, are able to embrace some of the femme fatale qualities rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They are able to succeed where so many others fail because of this: They write her like a person. Villanelle is the object of Eve’s attention and is leading her down a dark road, but she’s also a lead in her own right.
Regardless of Villanelle’s place in the femme fatale club, she is a special character because of what she adds to the modern pantheon of television antiheroes. What Killing Eve does spectacularly is that is gets the audience to see the world through an international assassin’s eyes without the audience really realizing it.
Personal confession time: In the premiere episode of season two, Villanelle kills someone in a way that distinctly varies from her normal flamboyant style and monetary motivation. She is in a hospital recovering from her stab wound as she forms a bond with the young boy in the bed next to her. He laments how he does not want to live with a face like his (it has been severely damaged in a car crash) and asks Villanelle if she could imagine living with his face. She answers honestly: no. So, she goes over to his bedside, lets him cry on her shoulder for a moment, and snaps his neck. My immediate reaction was, “That makes sense.”
What I mean by that is it’s not “good” but, I can see that logic there. The solution was clear in Villanelle’s mind. I found myself following Villanelle’s train of thought before the snap. A little scary? Yes. Should I bring this up in therapy? Maybe. Impressive on part of the writers? I think so!
Killing Eve gets us on the side of Villanelle by forcing us to think like her. It does not rely on making audiences lust after the character. We laugh with and at her, we root for her, we worry for her, and much to our horror, sometimes we might think like her. She is not just a side note in Eve’s journey into darkness. For once, the femme fatale gets to be a protagonist.