Brian De Palma’s filmmaking has won him reams of backhanded critical compliments, my favorite of which is that he’s better at making movies for fellow film geeks than he is at entertaining crowds or producing cohesive plots. Indeed, it’s hard to write about a De Palma flick without slipping into in-group shorthand. If I couldn’t locate his gauzy color palette, meticulous framing of interior spaces, obsession with histrionics within the melodramatic tradition of Douglas Sirk, or native feel for genre thriller rhythms within Alfred Hitchcock’s long cinematic shadow, it would be tough to muster anything more generous than my natural, immediate reaction to most BDP fare: “This really pretty thing kind of sucks?”
So it is with Passion, De Palma’s visually lush, aurally buoyant, and thematically necrotic remake of the 2010 french erotic thriller Love Crime (TMT Review). The film is gorgeous to behold from start to finish — even if it seems to take 14 hours rather than an hour-forty to get there — with three visually distinct acts linked through longtime De Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio’s eerie score.
Ad agency boss Christine (Rachel McAdam) manipulates protege Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and steals her most inspired bit of work, setting off a tawdry, escalating duel between the women that plays out in both their professional and personal lives. Said duel never carries the weight or suspense it needs to for the film to work in storytelling terms, partly because very few of the grand reverses the women pull on one another seem remotely plausible. For just one example: emails have timestamps, making them poor fodder for falsifying evidence, but no one in Passion seems to be aware of this basic fact with which every single person working in the hip advertising world of the computer age must be familiar.
Passion is at its best when De Palma lulls you into ignoring the criminally poor script, which he does quite well at various points. At roughly the midpoint of the film, there is a long and meticulously crafted tracking shot done in Steadicam that follows Isabelle from her office to the elevator to the parking garage, watching her melt down over Christine’s latest gambit. The real purpose of the shot, though, is to give visual clarity to the character’s mental shift, and De Palma uses the shot to move from the plush, pastel world of the first two acts into a shadowy expressionist fearscape of jackknife-shaped silhouettes, blue-black-grey mise-en-scène, and abundant dutch tilt. Isabelle, it seems, has come undone. In case you’ve missed this, the shot ends with her collapsing into a bawling pile next to her car under a sprinkler after crashing into pillars while trying to exit the parking garage. (Ladies be drivin, amiright!?)
The emotional histrionics and glaring plot holes are just about forgivable, since the point seems to be to immerse yourself in the visual trip of it all, and float along the stylistic current. Too often, though, it feels less like floating and more like wading through boring, quasi-misogynistic molasses. That misogyny question has haunted De Palma, who dismissed it with the directorial equivalent of “some of my best friends are black” in this interview with Fandango last week. A better defense is easy to muster: De Palma’s obsession with the act of viewing women’s bodies is not per se misogynistic, and arguably amounts to a subversive play for audiences to evaluate their own voyeurism, or at least to consider the voracious, devouring, objectifying way modern media culture tends to treat women. But that sort of critique-that-of-which-you-are-partaking argument falls apart when applied to Passion, which never supplies the thoughtful plot- or character-level stuff that might drive home some point about how cultural representation and consumption influence real-world attitudes and behavior towards women.
In lieu of such content, De Palma presents a heavily eroticized, half-heartedly sapphic, and bitterly hateful conflict between two quite lovely women. The endpoint of that conflict doesn’t provide any real satisfaction. Sexual deviance pops up a few times en route, but it’s of the joyless sort. De Palma also locates deviance around trauma, as both response-to and product-of, in exactly the sort of way that 50 Shades of Grey, Secretary, Ayn Rand books, and just about every other “mainstream” approach to the subject has done in American pop culture, and in the same way that was so revolting in Crystal Fairy (TMT Review). Having added 102 minutes of women fulfilling stereotypes of jealous harpydom to the very culture De Palma imagines he is critiquing, Passion offers up nothing in its resolution to push back on any of those bland, unimaginative, and damaging portrayals of the gender he claims to love.