Femme Fatales and Film Noirs

By Maeve Maddox

A freelancer who writes about film wants to know how to deal with two French terms used by filmmakers:

If I’m dealing with more than one film, is it “femmes fatale” or “femme fatales?” And when it comes to multiple films of film noir, is it “films noir” or “film noirs?” Plus, given that the terms are French, should they be italicized?

Note: Readers who are not film buffs may be unfamiliar with these terms as they are used in English. A femme fatale is an attractive and seductive woman. Film noir is a movie genre explained below.

The terms are so common in English that they do not need to be italicized

The expression femme fatale was in the language before it became a part of movie jargon. The earliest OED citation is from a US source dated 1879.

On the Ngram Viewer, both terms, film noir and femme fatale, begin their rise in printed books in the 1940s.

Film noir describes a category of gloomy movies that begins with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ends with Touch of Evil (1958).

The film noir genre breaks a previous Hollywood pattern that glorified home life, presented idealistic views of American government, and provided happy endings for the main characters. Film noir often depicts the criminal justice system as unfair, the police as corrupt, and the federal government as oppressive and threatening.

According to a description at the Film Noir Studies site, women in film noir are of three kinds: the “marrying kind” who wants the hero to settle down and conform to societal norms, the nurturing woman, who is depicted as “dull, featureless, and unattainable,” and “the femme fatale.”

The femme fatale is an independent, ambitious woman who rejects marriage, but who, in breaking free of the traditional male-female relationship, causes violent disruption in the lives of those around her.

French in origin, the terms have been sufficiently Anglicized to form their plurals by adding -s: femme fatales (not “femmes fatales”) and film noirs (not “films noirs”).

Some writers do form the plurals of these terms partially à la française (by adding an -s to the noun), but the Ngram Viewer indicates that such writers are in the minority. Likewise, the terms are italicized on some Web sites, but the recommendation given in The Chicago Manual of Style is to use roman type for foreign words that have entries in English dictionaries. The official site of the Film Noir Foundation does not italicize “film noir.”

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6 Responses to “Femme Fatales and Film Noirs”

  • AnWulf

    You’re out of step with both Merriam-Webster and the N. Amer. Oxford Dict. (NOAD) which both list (pl. femmes fatales pronunc. same). Wiktionary has (plural femmes fatales or femme fatales).

    For film noir, M-W has all three: plural film noirs or films noir or films noirs; the NAOD doesn’t show a plural, wiktionary has (plural film noirs or films noirs).

    FWIW, it should follow the pattern set by attorney general whose plural is attorneys general (NAOD). I would write films noir and femmes fatale since the noir and fatale are adjectivs and we don’t pluralize adjectivs in English. (But it is a wholly French phrase so it wouldn’t be wrong to make them both plural.)

    As for italicizing, I think all this befuddling about the plurals show that they are indeed foreign and should indeed be italicized. I always italicize femme fatale. It is a French phrase with French spellings.

    Film noir, OTOH, givs us a slightly nother problem … The phrase is French but ‘film’ is English … so it is half-English, half-French.

    I often shun the phrases anyway … easier to write about the “dark flims” of the 40s and 50s than struggle with the right plural.

  • Angélique

    It might be the most common usage to write “femme fatales”, but it makes the eyes of a French speaker bleed. It looks like a (pretty bad) misspelling and it doesn’t make sense to pluralize the adjective (“fatale” and “noir”) and not the noun (“femme” and “film”) in French AND in English.
    Of course it’s only my opinion 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    Not that I am any kind of authority on English, French, movies or women, and this is strictly my (semi-ignorant) opinion, but my gut instinct would be along the lines of AnWulf. In the case of “femme fatale,” a French phrase, I think it should follow French grammar, which dictates that a plural noun gets a plural adjective; i.e. femmes fatales, In the case of the phrase “film noir,” I believe that you (AnWulf) are incorrect in saying that this is a mixed phrase; I believe they use the word “film” in French just as we use it in English. In that case, construction should follow the above rule and it would be films noirs. You are right to point out that the pronunciation of the words does not change with the addition of the -s.
    I think the italics help set the phrase off to the readers, so they are immediately aware that (1) these words are “different,” in this case borrowed from a different language and therefore warrant non-English pronunciation, and that (2) the writer did not make a spelling error. I would cringe if I heard someone say “femz fatalz” or “filmz nwarz.” I think that if the writer prefers to anglicize them as femme fatales or femmes fatale (a la mothers-in-law), that is his/her prerogative, but then I would say not to put italics because it is no longer true to the actual foreign phrase, but an anglicization of it. Just my 2 cents, FWIW.

  • AnWulf

    @bluebird, I did say the phrase is French but I didn’t make it clear that film is borrow’d into French from English. So, in the end, film is an English word and the plural in English would still be films (it’s the same in French).

    The bigger dilemma comes whether to italicize the whole phrase since it is a French phrase or treat the word film as English and only italicize the noir. Most will do the whole phrase but I can’t say that to only italicize noir is wrong.

  • venqax

    Isn’t italicizing French something like a double negative? In any case, the italics and the pluralization seem to be linked problems. If italics are still required, then the term is still foreign and belongs in its foreign form femmes fatales or films noirs. If it has been anglicized, then it should not be italicized and should conform to English norms (such as “anglicized” means). So femme fatales and film noirs. Even though the first term is the noun and the second the adjective, the attorneys-general analogy does not hold because that construction comes first through an older form of English rather than directly from the habitual backwardness (literally) of Romance languages. The whole business calls into question the wisdom or desirability of using gallicisms when unnecessary, which is pretty much always. Dark films and fatal women are labels just as handy as foreign words that have no intrinsic meaning in English.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: No, because film noir does not mean dark film, at least not literally, and even if used figuratively, it does not exactly capture the essence of the film noir genre. I mean yes there are plenty of “dark” films (literally in terms of their lighting and figuratively in terms of their subject matters), but not all those films belong to the specific film noir genre. As far as fatal woman, that also doesn’t capture the whole persona of the femme fatale; plus, a femme fatale does not always cause death, or even totally horrible things. Maybe just a bit of havoc here and there…

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