Like the waves that lap the beach by the Palazzo del Cinema in Venice, Brian De Palma is reassuringly steadfast. Over the years his Movie Brat brethren Scorsese and Spielberg have adapted their respective styles to align with evolving audience tastes and advancing technology, embracing 3D and motion capture with their most recent works. Meanwhile, Terrence Malick, the other New Hollywood veteran competing for this year’s Golden Lion, experiments in increasingly radical filmmaking syntax with each passing movie. But De Palma is dogged: he continues to explore themes and techniques that have obsessed him since his ‘70s/’80s salad days of “Carrie” and “Body Double."
His latest, “Passion,” is a remake of 2010‘s “Love Games," the swan song of French filmmaker Alain Corneau, but it feels more like De Palma remaking his own back catalog. Towards its end, the film begins to play like a greatest hits collection, with wry nods and winks to his most woozy thrillers. De Palma-nuts are sure to be delighted as the film transforms into a dizzying cinematic Ouroboros, but cinemagoers with only a cursory knowledge of the director, through his more mainstream movies like “The Untouchables” or “Scarface," will be denied such self-reflexive pleasures and are likely to struggle to find much to connect with. This euro-thriller may revolve around a viral marketing campaign for a smartphone, but it’s hardly going to be mistaken for a Bourne movie.
Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star as members of a Berlin ad agency, and the casting is pleasingly against type. McAdams’ character – blonde, sapphic, possibly sick in the head – is Christine, a company highflyer who dresses like Grace Kelly but does business like Gordon Gekko. She’s working her way to the top of the corporate ladder off the sweat of her unassuming coworker Isabelle (Rapace): “You have talent. I made the best use of it,” the ice-queen boss tells her mousy underling after taking credit for her latest presentation. The characters are little more than noir cyphers, but both actors are game and have fun taking turns at playing femme fatale as they cross and doublecross each other throughout the increasingly convoluted narrative.
So the De Palma themes of betrayal, doubles, and identity switches are all there, but what’s missing, initially, is some of his visual panache. His camera lurches where it once danced. Graceful crane and dolly shots have clearly been curtailed given this French-German coproduction’s modest budget, and De Palma struggles to come up with any inventive alternatives, resulting in a rather arthritic first half hour. When Christine goes into a monologue telling Isabelle about a tragedy from her childhood, one can imagine the balmy flashback the director might have intended when writing the film, but instead the scene plays out as a simple shot/reverse shot, and the shopworn script isn’t equipped to do all the dramatic heavy lifting.
De Palma does eventually get to play, however. After one particularly cruel bit of theatre orchestrated by Christine to humiliate Isabelle, any relationship the film once had to realism goes out the window as Isabelle slips down a wormhole of depression and sleep deprivation. As she cracks, so too does the film. The angle on cinematographer José Luis Alcaine’s Dutch tilt is set to jaunty, and his lighting to expressionistic. Scene by scene the tone becomes more hallucinatory, and by the end of the film De Palma has bombarded us with enough feverish dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams to make Christopher Nolan’s head spin.
How well you respond to this shift to a more outré style is likely to depend on how seriously you’ve been taking the film so far, but there are clues along the way that De Palma wants us to cackle along with his often demented vision – just check the scene where Isabelle discovers that Christine’s bathroom drawer is overflowing with kinky love making paraphernalia, including a porcelain mask that will have significance in a later scene.
In the end, though, this isn’t quite the comeback for which fans, myself included, had been hoping. Whatever your opinion of De Palma’s oeuvre, there’s no denying he’s a fine craftsman of trashy thrillrides. But when his cinema really sings, such as in “Dressed to Kill," his giddy serial killer sex farce, or paranoid political thriller “Blow Out," his sense for image, composition, and movement is as fine as any living filmmaker. “Passion” has its moments: there’s a trademark De Palma split-screen, with the left-hand side showing a graceful ballet performance, while on the right a nerve-shredding dance of murder plays out. Later, there’s also a nifty ‘she’s behind you’ scare. But both have been used to better effect in “Sisters” and “Raising Cain." De Palma’s heart ultimately doesn’t feel fully in this film. What “Passion” is lacking is, ironically, some passion. [C+]