The past few years haven’t been Brian De Palma‘s finest time as a filmmaker. Neither Redacted nor The Black Dahlia left a mark with audiences, critics, or most of his fans. De Palma explored new territories and some old ones too with varying results. He does the same for Passion, which has been billed as a “erotic thriller”. Like the masterful Femme Fatale, De Palma plays with an audience as much as his characters do with each other. While the two female leads play their games De Palma is calculating just as sinister of a move of his own.
Or maybe some will see that narrative trick coming from a mile away. It’s all there in the highly-stylized aesthetic, never exactly hiding its impending reveal. A viewer will either find it on-the-nose or comforting. With De Palma’s tongue slowly cutting through his cheek though the result should be the latter. A part of how his reveal plays depends on one’s attitude towards the first half of the film. The set up is this: Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace) is an up and comer in the cutthroat world of marketing. She’s impressionable and naive, at least when it comes to her ice queen of a boss, Christine Standford (Rachel McAdams). At first their relationship resembles a friendly but flirty mentor/student dynamic, but it turns ugly when Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s successful ad idea — a commercial that, as hilariously pointed out, got millions of hits over night. It’s Christine and Isabelle’s film, and when it comes to casting, De Palma got at least half of the equation right.
Rapace is as chilly as McAdams’ Spider Woman, but for the wrong reasons. She made an impression with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, but since then, she’s turned in stilted work. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Prometheus, Dead Man Down, and now Passion all show a tranquility to her performances even when the opposite is called for. At times that blank exterior serves this film, but more often than not, she’s not half as present as McAdams or Karoline Herfurth is.
Herfurth plays Dani — Isabelle’s only friend and dearest admirer. She has an innocence to her that would’ve suited the film better had she played Isabelle. Isabelle’s vulnerability is phony from the start, which may be deliberate, but it’s not as engrossing seeing a possible nutbag lose her marbles instead of a genuinely moral person do the same. Rapace is the odd girl out between the three of them. Her performance can be enjoyed ironically, but it doesn’t help her case when McAdams bites into every one of Christine’s joyfully vicious moves. Seeing McAdams distort her recent image with this “villain” is a part of her performance’s alluring charm.
De Palma doesn’t play this as an atypical “girls fight”. They don’t throw punches or scratches, but poke at each other with mind games, manipulation, and technology. What thrusts the narrative and these women into action is — yes, you’ve guessed it — a smart phone. If Isabelle didn’t have a smart phone, both her life and Christine’s would’ve met more pleasant fates. Even Skype is portrayed as a weapon in this film. This is where the film becomes a more modern De Palma film, as oppose to a retread, and it’s all very, very funny.
But De Palma’s humor isn’t for everyone, and the same goes for the rest of Passion. This kind of material draws instant criticism or praise for being “trashy”. With De Palma’s eye, the elegantly bombastic cinematography, and McAdam’s self-aware performance, “trashy” isn’t exactly a fair generalization. Of course, the set up isn’t anything new, but De Palma first has to tread familiar territory before having fun with genre.
He lets loose in the film’s more surreal moments in the second half, making a potentially dull police procedural more amusing than it should be. De Palma can make two characters talking across a desk visually interesting at the very least, and often that’s all the film’s first half has going for it.
While the director is known as a master of suspense, here he’s more interested in laughs than jump scares or kink. Passion is somewhat of an ironic title: the sex and flirtatious moments are far from erotic; it’s more awkward than titillating; and the crime isn’t entirely deprived from passion. This is a nightmare film that’s often spontaneous, unexpected, and creepy at times, but once you wake up and reflect, it’s all more comical than terrifying.
The film isn’t scary, but De Palma throws in some uneasy S & M items and a horrifying mask that says everything about the film’s two characters. An evocative detail such as that mask is proof that he hasn’t lost his touch. This film is an old-fashioned glove that still fits De Palma pretty comfortably.
The Upside: Rachel McAdams shows a new side of herself; packs an occasionally hypnotic effect; ages favorably with time
The Downside: Noomi Rapace is stiff; not so much a problem, per se, but you know who committed the film’s crime from the start; the police investigations are less rousing than Isabelle and Christine trying to break each other
On The Side: Dominic Cooper was initially cast as Dirk Harriman, a sleaze caught between Christine and Isabelle’s games.