The movie inhabits the same artificiality it critiques right down to 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. During its most laughable moments, "Passion" still unfolds as a tantalizing enigma. 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, shamelessly histrionic depictions 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 calculated outlook of his protagonists. But the entertainment value associated with that uncertainty is the essence of his career.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Entertainment One releases "Passion" in U.S. theaters this weekend after premiering it on VOD earlier this month. The genre hook and stars should help it find solid returns in that format, but its theatrical prospects beyond opening weekend are severely limited. However, interest in De Palma's work as well as that of the cast may help elevate "Passion" for its initial few weeks.