I don’t know if you could call Passion a return to form for Brian De Palma. After the recent misfires like Redacted and Femme Fatale, I don’t think a return to form for De Palma is possible. At least not a return to quality.
It pains me to think this about De Palma. His work in the 1970s and 1980s were the raw materials of this (at the time) young movie nerd’s dreams; the blatant homages and over-the-top camera work were a joy to behold. But he wasn’t just referencing other filmmaker’s work; any hack can lift other people’s material in an attempt to give weight to his own work. No, what made De Palma special was the obvious, at times kinky, fun he was having while manipulating the audience.
True, anything you feel while watching a movie is the result of a filmmaker’s manipulation, but most try to hide the fact they’re manipulating you. Not De Palma. In the way the music would swell and become ridiculously operatic, or the way he’d draw out a suspenseful moment almost to the point of parody, then deliver a shock that leaves you wrung out yet weirdly exhilarated (the final sequence in Carrie (1976) will always hold a special place in my nightmares), De Palma always let the audience know they were being toyed with. And you could almost sense a devilish smile on De Palma’s face while doing it.
Passion is an attempt to recall that particular sense of kink that served De Palma so well in movies like Carrie, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill. It’s about two women, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, who work at a prestigious advertising firm. McAdams plays Rapace’s superior, and this very quickly seems like a bit of miscasting. McAdams is a fine actor, but Rapace has a darker and more dominant on-screen presence.
But with De Palma, this may be intentional. There’s a constant shifting of power in their relationship, with either artistic talent, or political deviousness, or raw sexuality as the trump card being used at any given moment. Throw in another character, an assistant to Rapace played by Karoline Herfurth, who’s a lesbian and clearly attracted to Rapace, and you have all the elements you’d think De Palma would need in order to concoct one of his deliriously lurid psycho-sexual melodramas.
De Palma even reunites with Pino Donaggio, the composer of all of those overly lush scores so important to De Palma’s work during his heyday. Add a carefully constructed sequence featuring a split screen, some expressionistic lighting and camera work (love those Dutch angles) and drawn out camera zooms, and again, this looks on the surface like what De Palma used to do best.
But the key phrase is “used to.” Passion lacks energy, and it lacks the seediness that made De Palma’s early work such dirty fun. De Palma is one of the most famous disciples of Hitchcock, but De Palma actually one-ups him when it comes to voyeurism… in one aspect anyway. Hitchcock seemed uncomfortable with his kinks, while De Palma seemed to revel in his. De Palma could never have directed a straight remake of Psycho, because the idea of a man feeling so guilty of his more prurient nature to the point of murder probably seems alien to him. And the fact that poor Norman would only wear his drag in private; yes, there are plenty of cross dressers in De Palma’s movies, but they never had a problem going out in public while doing so.
None of the playful perversity is evident in Passion. It feels like De Palma is just going through the motions, and while I was excited by the prospect of him reaching back to the 70s well, I was disappointed to see that it looks like he’s outgrown it. The only place there’s any passion in the movie is in the title.Follow @filmbyfelix