Director : Brian De Palma
Screenplay : Brian De Palma (based on the film Crime d’amour by Natalie Carter & Alain Corneau; additional dialogue by Natalie Carter)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Rachel McAdams (Christine Stanford), Noomi Rapace (Isabelle James), Karoline Herfurth (Dani), Paul Anderson (Dirk Harriman), Rainer Bock (Inspector Bach), Benjamin Sadler (Prosecutor), Michael Rotschopf (Isabelle’s Lawyer), Max Urlacher (Jack), Dominic Raacke (J.J. Koch), Trystan Pütter (Eric), Patrick Heyn (Manager #1), Ian T. Dickinson (Detective #2), Melissa Holroyd (Beate)
The key to so many of Brian De Palma’s films is that they can be—and, really, should be—viewed simultaneously as both straight-up suspense thrillers and dark comedies. Like his previous thrillers—notably Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992), and Femme Fatale (2002)—his newest film Passion skirts back and forth across that thin line, generating suspense and tension the old-fashioned way while simultaneously heightening everything to the point of near absurdity. De Palma’s operatic aesthetics and tendency to bait his detractors by playing up the very qualities they detest have always driven away viewers of a certain temperament—specifically those who want genre films that play straight and fair—but those who appreciate his visual and thematic flair will have plenty to savor in what is easily his best film since Femme Fatale.
The story, which was adapted by De Palma from the 2010 French film Crime d’amour by Alain Corneau, takes place in the cutthroat corporate environment of a major European advertising firm. The firm’s queen bee is an icy, red-lipped blonde named Christine Stanford (Rachel McAdams) whose professional aspirations are as ruthless as her sexual proclivities are perverse (she is so enamored of herself that she makes her lovers wear a stylized mask of her own face during sex). Christine is like a colder, more self-aware version of the teen bitch McAdams played so memorably in Mean Girls (2003). Christine’s underling is Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), a delicate, thoughtful “ideas” person whose best idea Christine shamelessly steals in order to advance her own career. Of course, Christine’s maliciousness always comes with a gleaming smile and a nod of mock understanding that only barely conceals the wicked gleam in her eye; she’s the kind of person who would stab you in the back, tell you she’s doing so, and then convince you that it’s your fault and that she had no choice.
As it turns out, Isabelle is not quite the frail, acquiescent, “Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?” weakling that she first appears to be, and soon the two women are engaged in a merciless battle for professional dominance while maintaining a veneer of polite deference to corporate camaraderie. Both Christine and Isabelle attempt to manipulate the people around them to their advantage, particularly Dirk Harriman (Paul Anderson), an advertising executive who is ostensibly Christine’s boyfriend, and Dani (Karoline Herfurth), Isabelle’s assistant whose obvious romantic crush on her boss makes her particularly wary of Christine’s nefarious intentions. The sexual tensions among the principal characters inform their every interaction, and De Palma gleefully indulges the allure of lipstick lesbianism (with a heavy emphasis on the lipstick) at virtually every turn; each of Christine and Isabelle’s conflicts has a titillating, sensual edge. As expected, De Palma intertwines sex and violence, but in this case the violence is primarily interpersonal and professional, although it eventually erupts into the physical variant.
Suffice it to say that, in traditional Hitchcockian fashion, a murder eventually takes place and the narrative shifts radically in focus, from corporate backbiting to criminal investigation and cover-up. Unlike Corneau’s original film, De Palma maintains an air of mystery regarding the murderer and toys with the favorite Hitchcock trope of the “wrongly accused man (or woman)” as the story descends into a spiral of paranoia, suspicion, and dreams within dreams within dreams. The film’s cool visual aesthetic, which relies heavily on chilly colors and sleek modern interiors to convey a claustrophobic sense of monied amorality, eventually gives way to flamboyant psychological breakdown (or the appearance thereof). The fact that the film takes place in the world of advertising—a world of surfaces and no real meaning except the sell—only enhances the vacuous nature of the characters’ lives.
As with many of De Palma’s best films, it is not always easy to tell what is real and what isn’t, and his florid camera moves and showy visual devices (including a crucial bit of eye-catching, perfectly choreographed split-screen) paired with frequent collaborator Pino Donaggio’s lush orchestral score, lulls you into a dreamlike stupor, to the point that you’re willing to accept almost anything De Palma throws your way (on one level, the film is really little more than a Lifetime movie with a vastly superior visual vocabulary and better sense of humor). Of course, that requires that you buy into De Palma’s cinematic worldview in the first place, and those who resist will likely see Passion as yet another over-the-top slice of derivative, sub-Hitchcockian absurdity. Those who appreciate what De Palma has to offer, however, will find something very nearly sublime.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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