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.