If someone has to make a film homage to Brian De Palma’s psychological thrillers of his early career (Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double), no doubt Brian De Palma is the director to do it. His latest film, Passion, is virtually a film-school lecture on his favourite themes, mechanisms and objects of fetishizaton: the female doubles, hips, lips, shoes, canted camera angles, crashing musical crescendos, Hitchcockian staircases, surveillance footage. And, of course, the parallels between cutting film and cutting bodies.
Though the director’s prints are all over the crime scenes here, Passion is actually a remake of the 2010 French thriller and corporate satire Love Crime, by the late Alain Corneau, which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as an arch-manipulative corporate boss and Ludivine Sagnier as her quick-study protégée.
De Palma’s version, which mutes the satire and heightens the visual design, casts actresses of similar age but physical contrasts: The porcelain-skinned blonde, Christine (Rachel McAdams; The Vow, Midnight in Paris), and the brooding brunette, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace; the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus). In a theatrically staged opening scene, the two women sit on a sofa in Christine’s apartment, cheek-by-cheek, as they look at a MacBook while discussing the inadequacies of a smartphone campaign they’re handling. After they take a break for a drink, Christine begins to flirt with and flatter her admiring protégée: “You’re conscientious, incredibly bright and you’re driven, like me,” she says.
After Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson) shows up, Isabelle goes home and, in the night, comes up with a clever viral marketing plan for the phone, which shows camera images from the back pocket of a pretty woman as men snap around to look at her. Isabelle gets a shock when Christine takes full credit for the idea. That sets off a series of covert retaliatory strikes between the women, with Dirk as a sexual pawn between them.
All of this is utterly non-naturalistic, with trite dialogue and broadly drawn performances. Shot in intense colours by Pedro Almodovar’s cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, it all resembles a melodrama performed on a fashion set. The schematic design is deliberately obtrusive: Isabelle has her own admiring hottie assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth), this time a redhead, to complement the blond Christine and brunette Isabelle. All this makes Passion, in a conventional sense, a bad movie: The performances are stiffly artificial, the characters’ machinations preposterous.
It just happens to be a bad movie that’s good to look at. Then, at about the two-thirds mark, De Palma pushes the film to a new level of abstraction, in its pattern of doubling, coupling and severing images. It begins with a split screen: On the left is a modern-dance performance, set to Claude Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune – the recital will later serve as one of the characters’ alibi for a murder. On the right, we see the murder conducted with similar meticulous choreography.
The movie’s last third features more attention-grabbing camera moves, more bondage-gear footwear, more barred shadows, more plot complications and, for genre’s sake, a hang-dog middle-aged detective, Inspector Bach (Rainer Bock), who’s dumb enough to try to figure it out. By this point, the movie feels almost experimentally detached from its characters, a giddy assemblage of shots that summarize De Palma’s contribution to the thriller genre. There’s passion here all right, but it’s for the filmmaking, not the film. Perhaps all this feels like foreplay for the real excitement – the Making of Passion DVD documentary.