The Digital Fix has three copies of Passion up for grabs. See here for details.
Brian De Palma’s insistence on annoying his critics has led to one of the most interesting careers in modern cinema and it continues in fine style in Passion. It’s based on the 2010 Alain Corneau film Love Crime but takes the basics of the plot – humiliated office worker takes revenge on her mean boss - and turns it into something very characteristic which is almost guaranteed to divide viewers. After a couple of films which offered much of interest but didn’t entirely work, De Palma has returned here to his familiar stamping ground.
The film begins as a relatively naturalistic thriller about office politics, shot in a vacant Berlin office block. Isabelle (Rapace) and Christine (McAdams), worker and boss, have a fascinatingly layered relationship with erotic overtones and a sense of strain caused by the latter’s insistence on playing power games and taking credit for the former’s ideas. Although Rachel McAdams is perhaps a little bit young for the part, she has way of making bitchiness divinely funny which reminds you of her defining role as Regina in Mean Girls. When she throws a phone across the room after telling an errant lover to “Call me never!” she’s both sexy and comic. Noomi Rapace, with her combination of vulnerability and toughness, is perfect as Isabelle, a woman who is just as much of a manipulator as her boss but not quite as good at forging a clear conscience. They play off each other with just the right erotic frisson as if wondering whether to fuck or fight to the death. Meanwhile, Karoline Herfurth’s Dani is on the sidelines, watching and, as we subsequently discover, waiting. In the midst of all this, Paul Anderson’s Dirk gets a bit lost. He’s not bad exactly but Dirk is meant to be a sly, sexy charmer and Anderson comes across as merely whiny. One suspects that De Palma’s tendency to be far more interested in the women in his films has resulted in him failing to offer his male lead a great deal of direction.
This is all very deftly done, give or take a ludicrous sequence supposedly set in London, but it’s not particularly redolent of classic De Palma. That changes suddenly when a Skype call made by Isabelle to Dirk results in a further mortification by Christine – pictured, full screen, in full-on Queen Bitch mode. Backed by Pino Donaggio’s romantic score, Isabelle hurries down to the car park and falls to pieces. It’s an astonishing moment of performance from Rapace who dares to go too far and risk becoming embarrassing. De Palma’s ability to mainline into our emotions gives the scene an uncomfortable directness, leading to Christine’s ultimate humiliation of Isabelle as she shows the CCTV footage of the breakdown to the assembled employees. Isabelle’s reaction – to laugh hysterically – is unforgettably squirm-inducing.
Immediately, De Palma’s stylistic obsessions start to come into play. We get the lavish, languorous camera movements, weird tricks of perspective, crazy camera angles, dreams that may or may not be dreams and, best of all, a lengthy split-screen sequence showing the ballet which Isabelle is watching alongside the murder of Christine. Everything is dialled up the max and it’s almost designed to annoy people who don’t like De Palma’s more excessive filmmaking techniques. The split-screen of the ballet and the murder is particularly interesting because it’s choreographed in a very careful way which is easy to miss on a first viewing. De Palma has been longing to film the Jerome Robbins staging of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun for a long time and he certainly makes the most of it, employing very tight close-ups and obsessive rhythms to great effect. Ultimately, of course, it’s not a great deal more than an alibi but it’s a much more ingenious one than Corneau used in the earlier film. Subsequently, De Palma, apparently unable to simply film a straight police investigation, plays around with film noir motifs and suggests dubious motivations for the men on the case – the police officer and the aggressively masculine prosecutor. He has chosen to use Pedro Almodovar’s cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine in order the make the women in the film look as stunning as possible, indulging one of his characteristic fascinations, while his life-long nerdiness is evident in his fascination with technology. The plot begins with a smartphone commercial, inspired by a real-life campaign and incorporating some delectable screen-within-screen moments, and proceeds to make significant use of Skype, You Tube, CCTV and the use of office networks. Even when the plot seems to be falling apart, De Palma’s direction never falters. Interestingly, he seems more concerned with the twisting motivations of the characters than in the overall narrative, and by the end of the film, it’s hard to find anyone to sympathise with. But Isabelle and Dani are refreshingly unstereotyped, and Karoline Herfurth deserves credit for creating a lesbian character who is neither sentimentalised nor clichéd. If anyone gets a raw deal, it’s Dirk – but then De Palma hasn’t shown much interest in him from the start.
What I’m saying in all this is that De Palma, no matter what film he sets out to make, seems to end up subverting and deconstructing it to a point where it’s almost guaranteed to irritate anyone who came to see a genre piece. Passion, marketed as an erotic thriller, is not especially erotic in a traditional sense– the sex is either sweatily perfunctory or part of a greater power game and the sexiest sequence, in a traditional sense, is the ballet itself. But there’s eroticism and sensuality in plentiful supply in the style – De Palma’s real passion is for filmmaking and it’s as potent here as it ever has been. He’s having a lot of fun and, like all his classic thrillers, this has a energetic comic spin. He loves playing with us as an audience, keeping us waiting for expected plot twists which either don’t arrive or arrive in an unusual way. The whole final half hour is one long game of misleading the audience and by the time you get to the Raising Cain self-homage, you’ll either be laughing along with De Palma or wondering why you wasted ninety minutes.
Which is perhaps the point. While his contemporaries seem to be going for Oscar glory and making films which are ever more anonymous, De Palma is continuing to plough his own, perversely iconoclastic furrow which is the thing which so divides viewers. If you’re not the same wavelength then I can imagine that the film looks pretty ridiculous. But if you like the director at his most personal, indulging his own obsessions and having a lot of fun in the process, then Passion might just end up being one of your favourite films of the year.
Metrodome in their wisdom have decided that Passion is not worth releasing in cinemas. This is perhaps understandable – although one wonders whether it could really be so difficult to market a film containing two of the most notable actresses of the moment to a theatrical audience. What is unforgivable, and frankly baffling, is their failure to give this visually stunning film a Blu-Ray release.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. It’s quite nicely colourful and has good contrast and flesh tones, but there’s a flatness compared to the French Blu-Ray which seems to jump off the screen in comparison. Blacks are never quite as deep as they might be and it’s just lacking that extra zing which a Blu-Ray transfer would provide. The soundtrack, coming in 2.0 and 5.1 options, is better, often emphasising Donaggio’s score to good effect and keeping dialogue clear. Subtitles are not offered for the main feature but one scene in German has burnt-in subtitles provided.
There are no extras on the disc.
Passion is a blazing return to form for De Palma after a couple of interesting but disappointing movies. It deserves better than this mediocre DVD release. Metrodome should be ashamed of themselves.