Passion is ostensibly Brian de Palma's remake of a well-reviewed French thriller from a few years back, called Love Crime, directed by Alain Corneau, co-written by Natalie Carter, and starring Kristin Scott Thomas. But, much like Brian De Palma's semi-remake Scarface, and pretty much every film he's ever made, with Passion (starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams), he has little interest in actualizing source material in the way that audiences will find “faithful.” Fans of the original are likely to find none of what they found appealing in this interpretation – the original, like every screenplay he's built from in the past, just provides the frame for his cinematic obsessions, fetishes, worship of Hitchcock, and anarchic visual experimentation.
But fans who have been patiently waiting for Rachel McAdams to reclaim her brilliant performance as the conniving, backstabbing mastermind Regina George in Mean Girls (She seems to have gone out of her way to play saccharine sweethearts or victims ever since.) will be pleased to see the grown up version to be more powerful and more cruel, without having developed pesky things like remorse, or a conscience. And Noomi Rapace is at home too, channeling her victim-turned-diabolical-and-ruthless-sadist from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Plot-wise Passion is a corporate powerplay between to female executives of a marketing firm. Rachel McAdams is Christine, some sort of chief executive of a major ad agency's Berlin branch, with Noomi Rapace as Isabelle, her ambitious yet loyal/submissive sidekick. Isabelle has a creative breakthrough with the smart phone campaign and comes up with an ad that's filmed entirely with the smartphone's video camera. The phone is carefully positioned to be peaking out of the back pocket of a particularly alluring pair of tight jeans, and so records the ogling stares of the mostly male (but a few female) passers-by. Naïve predators are unknowingly being watched themselves. You might recognize his inverted-voyeurism thing from the opening of his 1973 Sisters (the Pyscho one), where a hidden camera show called “Peeping Toms” secretly films men, under the impression they are being sneaky, watch women undress. Or from 1984's Body Double (the Rear Window one), when our “hero,” while peeping at a woman undressing by the window, glances over to catch a glimpse of another peeper watching the same show. He's repulsed, first by the voyeur he's caught, then by himself. De Palma knows the power and violence latent in the act of watching, and so his camera's lens boasts agency, personality, and self-awareness.
Anyways, Christine takes credit for Isabelle's idea, and Isabelle's worshipful attitude towards her mentor is shattered. This sets in motion a series of back 'n' forth power grabs, and vengeful acts of cruelty. Christine shows the entire office staff some security cam footage of Isabelle having a breakdown when she thought she was alone, and thus safe. But you're never alone these days what with all the technology and the surveillance and what not, and since this is De Palma, you were never really alone or safe in the first place. This guy was doing the whole paranoid surveillance thing before it was rendered fashionable by the populist reaction to post-Patriot Act policies
So, toss in a laundry list of De Palma tropes: twists, some nonerotically titillating sex scenes, some Eyes Wide Shut-y masks, some more subplots about people getting filmed without knowing it, a loud, in-your-face score by Pino Donaggio, a ballet/murder split-screen sequence, some ambiguous dream stuff, and his problematic brand of a feminist critique of objectification/exploitation, and you got yourself your De Palma movie. It's all pretty standard, and might even seem like a step back for him. Honestly, it's a huge step back from the more academically completist work of his latter day Femme Fatale (alienating to anyone not acquainted his De Palma's specific brand of cinephiliac fetishes.), and an unapologetic return to the late-night cable trash aesthetic of his 80s perversions like Body Double.
What an event a new Brian De Palma film is! He's a living legend, and among the last of a dying breed – a filmmaker who works in visuals, rather than written wit. Compared to most filmmakers working in Hollywood today, his skills are more suitable for the job of a ballet choreographer (which he does channel in his new film). It's no mystery why he's fallen from critical grace – the trajectory of cinema he represents was not followed. Audiences have increasingly flocked to films that rely on clever dialogue spoken by characters we believe to recognize as ourselves, who are displayed to us with obvious, static camerawork – as if to conceal from us that we're even watching a movie. One of the missions of peeps like Ingmar Bergman and the French New Wavers, to deconstruct the artifice of cinema, has been undone to the point where your average viewer sees a too stylized move of the camera as a mistake. “What was the point of that?” “That didn't seem real.” (As if there is a way to fabricate an illusion such as cinema in a way that's being 'real.') It must be explained, the director has violated some rule. De Palma has always gleefully spat at those imaginary edicts, and with this new one, he's still spitting...this time not just at those critics, but at the current state of cinema, the art he helped define with masterpieces like Sisters, The Fury, Body Double, Femme Fatale, Hi Mom!, Phantom of the Paradise, and Carrie....the art which has left him behind.
So, it's no surprise that it's low on stuff like dialogue, plot, characters, and believability. De Palma has no time for those elements out of reverence to the higher cinematic languages of visuals and music.....and of course, extreme and glorious camp. But this film is also disappointing De Palma devotees left and right. The problem is, Passion is his least interesting visual experience to date. It's flat out lame. It's all static close-ups - the camera barely moves at all! What the hell is going on here? Even his mediocre Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars have fantastically spectacular single-tracking-shot openings, and all that crap. The movie takes place in Berlin, but I only know that because I looked it up afterward. The movie is so claustrophobic (not the good kind, the stylistic choice kind), we don't get any real sense of place at all. It was De Palma's idea to move Mission: Impossible (yeah, he directed the first one) to Europe, and now he's in Berlin and all he wants to do is stay inside the office building? I understand that the story's core elements all take place indoors, but how about in Scarface, when there's that crazy standoff 'n' bloodbath inside of that motel room where the drug deal was supposed to go down and it's all crazy tense, and it's not even enough to keep the camera's attention – it gets distracted by the Miami sunshine, wanders outside the window, and cranes down to the street, to check out Tony's friend Manny hitting on some bikini from inside a nice convertible. Then De Palma finally succumbs to the narrative and his camera reluctantly returns to check back in with how Tony is handling everything. (He's got this, don't worry.)
De Palma's camera has a persona, and so each of his movies is more like a character with emotions than an empty universe that he fills with characters. His characters are ornaments of the filmic universe he creates. His world is the entity with a beating heart, not any of the alleged “people” on screen. His Femme Fatale opens with the titular femme's (Rebecca Romijn, back when she still had the -Stamos) reflection on a TV screen as she's watching the finale of the incessantly referenced Double Indemnity. As Billy Wilder's classic is a studio effort from 1944, it had to resolve itself with some sort “putting the woman back in her place” ending, and once Mrs. Dietrichson begins to express her remorse and how she actually loves the guy she spent the movie lying to and conning, we suddenly hear, off-screen, as if from the film itself, an angry “What fuck are you doing?” The TV is promptly switched off. This is soon narratively contextualized, as the femme is supposed to be getting ready for a split-screen diamond heist/lesbian sex sequence, and her employer wants to make sure she's prepared, but De Palma's view of the ending of that noir is clear – it was a concession, and it is not a concession he intends to make in his own film.
Passion, as a film, has a mind of its own as well, and a philosophical agenda that's even more consistent and explicit than that. Hiding in plain sight as what will seem a waste of time to most audiences, and a huge disappointment to most De Palma devotees, Passion slyly emerges as a manifesto of hostility toward new technologies, and movie culture's transition from cinema to streaming.
It opens with an extreme close-up of that ubiquitous image that has found its way into not only what feels like every movie we watch, but every direction we look outside of the screen – that glowing white apple. Sure, that computer company's logo has been in films for years now, for much longer than people have lined up for its new products (in fact, its cinematic prevalence is one of the main reasons people starting lining up in the first place), but the product placement has never been this blatant, this transparent, or this loud. This goes beyond the allegedly satirical yet still effective ads peppered throughout Minority Report – a glowing apple that so obscenely dominates the frame inspires revulsion, not budgeting for a new small screen.
Our dueling women are working on a campaign for a smart phone. “We have to make our smart phone seem like the smartest,” Christine declares. Their first attempt at a campaign focuses on the phone's durability, which means that the first image we see after the glowing apple of dominance is a phone dropped into a glass of water.
An underground parking structure contains a curiously placed vending machine that sells a classic cola. It looks like it's in one of the parking spaces, it's so central in the frame. Soon enough, the reason for its presence is clarified when a car crashes into it, smashing it to bits and carbonated blood streams.
The narrative is constantly interrupted by the most piercing shrieks of phones, so painful you'll check your phone and make sure it's off.
In the end, one of the character's super clever, twisty mastermind schemes is unravelled at the ends of an “old-fashioned” cellular phone. I've heard people call them “future phones."
De Palma has insisted that he's “Mr. High Tech,” and is fascinated by these new developments. Still, when pondering his decision to shoot the film on 35mm in a recent interview, he questioned “What was the point?” And let's face it – what the hell would have been the point of shooting the film with the spectacle and choreography that is his most signature talent and cinematic viewpoint, if the vast majority of Passion's audience is going to see the film on a laptop, or at best some wall-mounted flat screen. Nothing's worse than a snob who insists that “true films must be viewed in a theater,” but certain movies just don't make sense to watch in the palm of your hand. It's why visuals are decreasingly discussed by filmgoers, and Smart TV now reigns. Viewers focus on story, structure, and acting – elements you're forced to focus on when you watch TV because the small size guarantees nothing will be sufficiently spectacular. So I guess it makes sense that Passion feels just like some isn't-it-past-your-bedtime-turn-off-the-TV “sexy” thriller. This is De Palma's allegedly complicit, yet undeniably resentful succumbing to television's conquest of the movies.
The ending is such a hoot, though. The final image and scream contain more insight into the psychology of dreams and the seeds buried deep within our un/sub/non-conscious that come to define our existence than Christopher Nolan could have ever crammed into that heist movie he made.
"Passion" opens August 30, 2013 and is rated R. Thriller. Written and directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Aaron Johnson, Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams.