The phrase is French for "fatal woman". A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. In some situations, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm. She may also make use of some subduing weapon such as sleeping gas, a modern analog of magical powers in older tales. She may also be (or imply that she is) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape; The Lady from Shanghai (a 1947 film noir) is one such example. A younger version of a femme fatale is called a fille fatale, or "fatal girl".
One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the "rejection of motherhood," seen as "one of her most threatening qualities since by denying his immortality and his posterity it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male." Femmes fatales are typically villainous, or at least morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification, and unease.
The femme fatale archetype exists in the culture, folklore and myths of many cultures. Ancient mythical or legendary examples include Kali, Lilith, Mohini, the Sirens, the Sphinx, Scylla, Aphrodite, Circe, Medea, Clytemnestra, Lesbia, Helen of Troy, and Visha Kanyas. Historical examples from Classical times include Cleopatra and Messalina, as well as the Biblical figures Delilah, Jezebel, and Salome. An example from Chinese literature and traditional history is Daji.
The femme fatale was a common figure in the European Middle Ages, often portraying the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The pre-medieval inherited Biblical figure of Eve offers an example, as does the wicked, seductive enchantress typified in Morgan le Fay. The Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute shows her more muted presence during the Age of Enlightenment
The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Lamia". Along with them, there rose the gothic novel, The Monk featuring Matilda, a very powerful femme fatale. This led to her appearing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as the vampire, notably in Carmilla and Brides of Dracula. The Monk was greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade, for whom the femme fatale symbolised not evil, but all the best qualities of Women; his novel Juliette is perhaps the earliest wherein the femme fatale triumphs. Pre-Raphaelite painters frequently used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a subject.
In the Western culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the femme fatale became a more fashionable trope, and she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck and Gustave Moreau. The novel À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans includes these fevered imaginings about an image of Salome in a Moreau painting:
No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.