Though he’s made some of the most indelible films of our time, like “Carrie,” which sits near the top of the heap of the greatest of all horror flicks, and “Scarface,” which grew to become the defining film of American urban excess, Brian De Palma is nowhere near as celebrated as he should be. Known for creating as many outré thrillers and sex-infused noirs as popular action films (consider the range of differences when looking at “Sisters,” “Body Double,” “The Untouchables,” and “Mission: Impossible”), he has notoriously been hit-or-miss when it comes to his critics, who are likely to argue with each other over whether a given De Palma work is high art or half-decent trash. Even now, De Palma’s latest, “Passion,” a remake of late French director Alain Corneau’s final film, “Love Crime,” is proving critically divisive. And yet, it’s some of the most wicked fun to be had at the movies this year.
Playing to his singular strengths, De Palma delivers a gorgeously crafted, sexy camp-noir, as bitingly funny as it is restlessly hypnotic. Inheriting the roles of two sparring corporate frenemies from Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas, Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star as Isabelle and Christine, two ad agency employees entangled in a web that involves attraction, backstabbing, and, eventually, murder. When speaking to me about “Passion,” De Palma seemed both giddily animated about the film’s twisted virtues and sharply serious about his craft and his criticisms. In a way, his toggling tones reflected those of the movie itself, particularly when he shifted gears from chatting about Rapace’s maniacal laughter and McAdams’s improv-ed expletives to challenging the notion that the film is all (beautifully realized) surface.
At the moment, “Passion” seems to be pretty evenly dividing critics, which is certainly nothing new for you, looking back on your career. How conscious are you of the critical reception of your films during the process of making them?
Well, I’m pretty aware of the division in the reviews. But some of my films that have gotten the worst reviews are the ones they keep talking about today, so it’s hard for me to really assess the longterm effect of it. Of course it’s always nice to have a wonderful review and to have someone see what you’re doing, but I do think, in a certain way, that I’m like an abstract expressionist. And then everybody that doesn’t like abstract expressionism starts to review my movies, and that’s about half of [the critics]. If they don’t like the kind of movies I’m making, I don’t know why they bother to review them. [Laughs]
Do you think your relationship with critics has affected how you view or approach your career at all? Because I think it’s safe to say you have one of the most varied and interesting relationships with reviewers of any living director.
I basically make the movies the way I see it, and I don’t really worry too much about what the reviews are. Movies like “Scarface,” “Carrie,” and “Blow Out” had some terrible reviews, and those, again, are movies that people are still talking about. So I can’t really take it too seriously. With the reviews, basically, you’re being judged against the fashion of the day, and, of course, the fashion of the day changes all the time. So what endures is what’s important, I guess, and I’m just very fortunate that I’ve made movies that seem to have endured.
Some supporters of “Passion” are calling it a return to form for you, in part because “Redacted” and “The Black Dahlia” weren’t so well received overall. Did it feel like this was reawakening a certain part of you as a director, or do you think you’ve just been on the same path and those other films were misunderstood?
They were different. They were different from the thrillers I made in the ’70s and early ’80s. This film has a lot of similarities to those, because it’s a thriller, it’s a mystery, it plays a lot with the cinematic form, it’s got music by Pino Donaggio, it has gloriously beautiful women in all kinds of peril. I think that’s why they’re drawing the analogies to my movies of the past. I don’t think about it when I’m making the movie; I just do what I do, and I guess, since I am who I am, there are certain similarities in this type of thriller that I’ve made.
Yeah, the film also continues, as you said, your tradition of depicting memorable, erotic female characters. In regard to the casting of “Passion,” why Rachel and why Noomi?
Basically, by chance. We had been looking for a while, and we had a pretty easy time casting the Isabelle part. But it was difficult to get people to want to play the heavy—to play Christine. Because, I don’t know, people don’t always like to play bad, manipulative characters, even though they are the most interesting characters there are, sometimes. So I was talking to another director about Noomi, and he had all of these DVDs of her early Swedish films. He said, “You should really consider her—she’s really something.” Obviously I had seen the “Dragon Tattoo” series, and then I looked at her early films and I could see this extraordinary actress. So I sent [the script] to her, and she wanted to do it, and fortunately, she had just finished [“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”] with Rachel, and they liked working together. So it happened because the actresses enjoyed working with one another, and we were fortunate to get Rachel to play this part.
It’s interesting to see Rachel in this role, because while she’s ended up doing a lot of romantic comedies, her most celebrated role may still be as the class bitch in “Mean Girls,” which puts her in a similarly manipulative power position, albeit in a very different setting.
Exactly. Needless to say, I was very familiar with that film.
Like “The Black Dahlia” and “Femme Fatale” before it, “Passion” has elements of lesbianism woven into it. Is there something particular that’s drawing you to that theme in this stage of your career?
Not really. I mean, in this case, it was because of the original movie that I was making an English remake of. [The original] was basically this relationship between these two women—an older and younger woman. In our case, they’re about the same age. And in the Corneau movie, they kind of played around with the flirting and the sexual tension between them, whereas I just made it a little more explicit.
You’ve received some accusations of misogyny for some of your past work, but there’s feminist commentary that can be drawn from “Passion.” Was there any consciousness on your part of injecting any feminist statements into the film?
[Laughs] I don’t think so! It’s a murder mystery, with one woman manipulating another. And the girls, more or less, had a lot of fun kind of taunting each other, sexually and in any other way. They were having a very good time making this movie.
Well, to think of an example, I think the presentation of Isabelle’s jeans ad, wherein a camera phone in a woman’s back pocket catches everyone staring at her ass, was a good bit of tongue-in-cheek feminism.
That’s based off of an actual ad that I discovered on the Internet. It was made, seemingly, by two random girls. One put a phone in the back pocket of the other, and they started goofing off as they walked around L.A. And the ad went viral, and everybody said “Wow!” And then they found out it was done by two advertising executives.
Oh, wow. You know, a good friend of mine has a still of Noomi, in the company party scene, laughing uncontrollably, as his Facebook cover photo. And I swear I just can’t look at it without laughing uncontrollably myself. How would you describe this movie’s sense of humor?
Well, first of all, Noomi came up with that. I mean, I didn’t know what she was gonna do. Rachel was taunting her relentlessly, and the whole office staff is looking at her, and then she just gives this crazed laugh. Chilling! And I was there to photograph it, basically. They were toying with each other all the time, and these sort of things kind of happened spontaneously.
Anything else notable like that that happened spontaneously?
Well, that kind of mafia kiss that Noomi gives Rachel, when Rachel prances over to her and says, “Why don’t we just kiss and make up?” [Laughs] Noomi just grabs her and gives her this kind of kiss of death! And then Rachel, just playing off of it, and realizing she’s being watched by Dani [played by Karoline Herfurth], kisses her back. It was just perfect.
I love the moment just after that, when Isabelle tells Dani to “shut up and go back to work.”
[Laughs] Yes! “Who do you think you are? Shut up and go back to work.”
I’m assuming that was not improvised.
No, that wasn’t. But when Rachel comes into the other office, and looks over at [Herfurth’s character] and says, “We laugh about your ridiculous crush,” my line, that I wrote, was, “I know you’re after her ass.” Rachel said, “I know you’re after her cunt.” And I went, “Whoa! Wow.” But, I left it the way it was.
So both actresses took advantage of the opportunity to really cut loose with the material?
In what many see as a commentary on our culture, there seem to be a lot of films released lately that are gorgeously crafted, yet intentionally shallow, merging highbrow form with lowbrow substance. Since “Passion” is clearly made with a great deal of artistry, but ostensibly silly in many ways, do you think it fits the bill in that regard?
I think I would challenge that perception. This is basically a murder mystery, very much patterned after the original Corneau movie. I know what you’re talking about, because I’ve read those reviews, but I think that they don’t quite understand how it veers off in a kind of odd way. The whole idea is to keep the audience guessing about who committed the murder. And the way I did it was to make it all kind of…a dream. Did she actually do it? Did she take too many sleeping pills? Does she know what she’s saying? It was basically a way to confuse the audience in terms of who, in fact, committed this crime, unlike the Corneau movie, which reveals the killer right away.
Speaking of remakes, you talked earlier about your enduring classics, and one of them, “Carrie,” is about to be released as a remake. How do you feel about the new film?
Well, I know Kimberly Peirce very well, and she called me up, and discussed her approach and told me what they’d done with the script, and we talked about it. I’ve known Kimberly for years. We used to go to the theater together in New York. And she’s an extremely talented director. The stills I’ve seen for the movie, and the trailer, look really good. So I’m looking forward to seeing it like everyone else.
If you had an opportunity to remake one of your own movies, would you? And if so, which one would it be and why?
Well, “Raising Cain” was an interesting idea that I didn’t quite pull off. I think the way it was constructed was too labyrinthine. I started the movie with John Lithgow’s story, but in the original script, I really started it with [Lolita Davidovich’s character’s] story. Oh! And somebody on the Internet recut the movie the way the original script was, and started the movie with the wife’s story. And it seemed to work quite well! [Side note: The project he was referring to was in fact one cut by Press Play, a blog on the Indiewire network. Go here to view it.]
Maybe it’ll go viral like the jeans ad.
Yeah, right. [Laughs]