Femme Fatales and Film Noirs
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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