The femme fatale was invented in France. A giddy, greedy child in her first incarnation, as the antiheroine of Abbé Prévost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), she had no voice of her own. Reshaped as a sphinx by Alfred de Musset, made over as a gypsy by Prosper Mérimée, plumped out with fashionable sentimentality by Massenet and mordant sensuality by Puccini, her function was to beguile and elude, to want something that those who wanted her were unable to give her, then die. In Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande even that wanting is stripped away. ‘Ne me touchez pas!’ sings Mélisande, but Golaud, made ugly and old for want of love, cannot or will not listen.
Where Manon grasps at gold, Mélisande lets it slip through her fingers, twice.