One is rarely indifferent towards Brian De Palma's thrillers; you either hate them or love them in spite of everyone hating them. Body Double is like that. Raising Cain is like that. The Black Dahlia is like that. Femme Fatale is like that. For so much of Passion's running time, I was hoping it was like that. I wanted to like it despite most critics panning it. The movie doesn't always make that easy.
Things start well enough, with a bunch of gorgeous, sterile establishing shots over the credits and a bouncy Pino Dinaggio score that suggests the movie is very aware of its own status as a thriller and intends to have fun with it. No one does that better than De Palma, and the realization that you're back in his hands creates an initial wave of giddiness. A new Brian De Palama thriller! Brilliant photography and carefully orchestrated set pieces? Shocking violence! Shameless eroticism! All the things I want from a movie!
Passion does have all of those things, but in wildly varying degrees.
There are a lot of problems with Passion, not the least of which is the central performance by Noomi Rapace, an actress who continues to be cast in a lot of American movies despite not being very good in any of them. Hired as the dark, earthy counterpoint to McAdams' porcelain blonde iciness, it seems as though Rapace's work starts and ends with a haircut and a black wardrobe. It's not that she's terrible. At least terrible would be a thing. She just fails to be a factor, not having the vampy fun of McAdams but not grounded enough to pull off the whole "we're in two different movies" conceit. For any of the sexual mindgames to work, the actresses need to have chemistry. We need to think that they really could start kissing at any moment. Best case scenario? We hope that they will. Rapace and McAdams feel less like characters with any kind of relationship or history than two actresses hired by a casting director. For all of its lesbian teasing, Passion is one of De Palma's least erotic films. I assume the title is meant to be ironic. The movie is downright sterile.
A lot of the plot is reliant on tech-talk and corporate culture, and De Palma's screenplay is mostly tone deaf with all of it. Movies consistently run into problems when they require characters to be VERY IMPRESSED by something that is not very impressive, which is why so many movies just avoid actually revealing that thing; for Passion, it's the viral video that Rapace creates for a smartphone that is NOT GREAT but which we are asked to believe dazzles high-level executives worldwide. The rest of the film's corporate speak is not much better, as Rachel McAdams barks things like "I want those figures on my desk by tomorrow!" For a film set in the cutthroat (literally) world of the tech business, the screenplay seems entirely uninterested in understanding the tech business.
So much of Passion is about doubles: characters have twin siblings, scenes play out in front of mirrors, one incredibly important sequence involves a character literally wearing the mask of another character. This, too, is a recurring theme of De Palma's work: Sisters, Body Double, Raising Cain, Obsession, Femme Fatale. Why this is an idea to which the director keeps returning I cannot say, except that he clearly saw Vertigo as a young man and it never left him. Does it ever leave any of us? But the reappearance of this theme raises another question about Passion: can a movie with this much De Palma in it be a "bad" Brian De Palma movie?
Not for me, but that could be the apologist talking.
Is it a movie that's going to appeal to much of an audience outside of hardcore De Palma fans? Probably not, because it plays too much like the director's greatest hits. The screenplay (adapted by De Palma) says very little that hasn't been said before -- there is some attempt at commentary on our current state of living under 24-hour surveillance, but it doesn't add up to much -- leaving the movie mostly an exercise in style. That's the director's strong suit, meaning the movie still hums along with operatic precision and pushes a lot of my De Palma buttons even when it's a lot of empty calories. It's hardly among the director's essential work, but evidence that he can certainly still make an effective thriller with more on its mind than just cheap sex -- not that there's anything wrong with that. He may have lost a step or two, but at least he's still in the race.
No one cuts like De Palma.