Since earliest stages of Brian De Palma’s career, his thrillers have constantly walked a line between self-parody and earnest pastiche. “Passion,” a reworking of the late Alain Corneau’s final film “Love Crimes,” reassuringly falls into this camp, signaling a return to form for the director despite its many flaws. Much more than a simple revamp of existing material, “Passion” is a veritable De Palma remix, at once a classy suspense movie and an unquestionably silly affair. Regardless of its glaring flaws, “Passion” is reassuringly old school.
Borrowing only the fundamental plot of the original, “Passion” follows Berlin-based advertising honcho Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her meek assistant Isabel (Noomi Rapace), whose attempts to forward her career are constantly hampered by her boss’ power-hungry antics. As Isabel grows desperate to wrestle some modicum of control when Christine takes credit for one of Isabel’s ideas, Isabel launches into a clandestine affair with Christine’s husband (Paul Anderson) while scheming up new plans for domination with fellow disgruntled coworker Dani (Karoline Herfurth). But Christine’s domineering presence gets exceedingly personal, and she eventually figures out a way to humiliate Isabel in front of her coworkers while complicating her personal life with a series of sexual advances.
As the friction between the two women builds, “Passion” develops the aura of a sultry noir replete with increasingly depraved acts driven by furious envy and ego. With the motives of both characters continually ambiguous, the sleek melodrama takes prominence over plot specifics. De Palma’s screenplay is less insightful than the hyperbolic mood pushing it along: Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, best known for filming numerous Pedro Almodovar movies, draws out the absurd soapiness of the scenario with brightly lit scenes seemingly lifted from a fashion commercial not unlike the material produced by Christine’s firm. The movie inhabits the same artificiality it critiques.
That includes the performances. McAdams’ cruel femme fatale is an exceedingly one-note portrayal, but her sadistic demeanor provides a meaty foil for Rapace’s reserved temperament, which hides darker secrets only evident as the story inches forward. Initially a laughably one-note portrayal, their rivalry provides a launchpad for peculiar criminal behavior that consumes the fragmented conclusion, in which De Palma’s true presence behind the camera takes charge.
No daring hodgepodge of narrative pathways along the lines of “Femme Fatale” or “Dressed to Kill,” De Palma’s latest work nevertheless falls in line with his tendency to twist an initially tangible plot into a number of overlapping possibilities. When the onslaught of tricky formalism arrives, “Passion” serves up a grab bag of De Palma delights, including one particularly memorable split screen that contrasts a ballet performance with cold-blooded murder. It’s frequently not clear exactly what has transpired and from whose perspective, but by keeping open several possibilities, “Passion” celebrates the prospects of reflexive narrative. Like the best De Palma efforts, “Passion” is about the power of cinema more than anything else.
Those familiar with De Palma’s style may get a naughty kick out of his roaming camera and abrupt editing choices as “Passion” wanders through Rapace’s subjectivity. Even when the movie stumbles on its cleverness with trite dialogue and an underwhelming whodunit mystery, it emphasizes the genre’s extremes in a way that renders the overall story irrelevant. Even when laughable, “Passion” unfolds as a tantalizing enigma because De Palma’s motives are heavily suspect. Every ridiculous exchange benefits from the filmmaker’s appropriation of film language: Canted angles and high contrast shadows render fear and desire in blatant terms that at first draw out the rudimentary plot and finally overwhelm it. De Palma fans will appreciate the Hitchockian flourishes present in the frantic scenes of confrontation as “Passion” draws to a close. Only De Palma can spoof the master of suspense and do him proud in one seamless maneuver. A central question — the shifting identities of victim and oppressor — matters less than the means by which the movie asks it.
Littered with adoring close-ups of his depraved anti-heroes, shameless snapshots of sexual tension and sudden revelations of their confounding motives, “Passion” simultaneously parodies its plot while elevating it to a strangely involving exercise in cinematic drama. The filmmaker has either lost control of the material or maintains the same calculation of his protagonists. But the entertainment value associated with that uncertainty is the essence of his career.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having faced a mixed response at both Toronto and Vencie, “Passion” next lands at the New York Film Festival without a distributor. However, as an erotic thriller with two established leads, it is bound to find a home with a midsized distributor capable of playing up those undeniably commercial ingredients for a decent-sized audience.