Directed by Brian de Palma
Screenplay by Brian de Palma
USA / Germany, 2012
The story goes that, when asked why his new film Passion contained highly stylized touches even in scenes that did not appear to need them, its director responded simply, “Because I’m Brian de Palma.” That answer should not be taken with 100% seriousness, as de Palma has long been equal parts auteur and provocateur. Unfortunately, Passion seems to have been made by a director who can’t decide which he is trying to be.
The film is a tug of war between Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and Christine (Rachel McAdams), who are advertising executives in Europe; although Isabelle is the subordinate and Christine the boss, there is a strong sexual undertone to their relationship from the first frame. When Isabelle devises an innovative campaign for a new smartphone and Christine attempts to take credit for it, a series of deceptions and betrayals erupt between them.
As should be expected from de Palma by now, the film looks fantastic. As with de Palma’s Sisters, the camerawork starts off relatively vanilla, but as the thriller-type elements of the plot accelerate there is more and more stylization. By the end of the film every shot has a whip pan or a crazed Dutch angle. One long sequence, in which a single-take ballet performance of “Afternoon of a Faun” shares a split screen with some decidedly more lurid events, certainly deserves points for its audacity.
However, as audacious as the ballet sequence may have been, Passion had long been off of the rails by then. Rapace and McAdams are decent actresses, but it’s not clear if they both believed they were in the same film. McAdams is vamping every one of her scenes to the highest degree, with even her biggest “serious” monologue seeming to come forth with a wink and a grin. Across the set is Rapace, as sincere as can be, wearing every betrayal and distress on her face even into the nonsensical Grand Guignol climax.
The difference between the two performances is so pronounced that the film is repeatedly flirting with camp. In fact “camp” might not even be the right word, as certain moments in this film seem to contain the same drama as would a de Palma remake of The Room. Given the way that de Palma managed to splash satire into straightforward Hollywood efforts like The Untouchables, it may be that the camp was actually his plan all along, but it’s hard to tell. This is the sort of picture where the heroine puts a video up on YouTube, it gets 10 million hits in five hours, and the director doesn’t tip his hand as to whether or not he knows how absurd that is.
In the end, this film works best as an awkward provocation, a crazed attempt at a Basic Instinct-like film intended to tweak America’s uptight opinions about sex. (That’s certainly the only reason for the scene with the guy in the leather dog muzzle.) Such a film requires a brash, stylish look and a director unafraid to let his movie swing toward the lurid – two things that Passion has in spades. Such an approach also requires nearly nothing in the form of logic or drama, and it’s exactly in those two areas where this movie comes up short.
The New York Film Festival celebrates 50 years and runs from September 28 to October 14, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.