Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Passion

by Patrick Bromley
Passion is a movie only a Brian De Palma apologist could love. I am a Brian De Palma apologist. So why don't I love it?

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.
A remake of the 2010 French film Love Crimes, Passion finds advertising big shot Rachel McAdams and her assistant Noomi Rapace thrown into competition with one another after McAdams takes credit for an idea that isn't hers. Before long, they've entered into a game of one-upsmanship in the boardroom and the bedroom that ultimately leads to murder. And...that's it for plot.

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.

There are sequences and shots in the movie that feel like classic De Palma, but appear to be present only because we have come to expect them. There are dual focus shots here because there were dual focus shots in Blow Out. There is a middle section that's all canted angles and slits of steel-blue lighting, like a film school student's idea of what a dream sequence should look like. It's De Palma imitating older, better De Palma. There is, of course, a lengthy split-screen sequence designed to be the movie's centerpiece, but the technique is almost wholly unnecessary. Far from the masterful split screen sequences in Phantom in the Paradise (the bomb in the trunk) or even Snake Eyes (the assassination), the two sides of the image comment on one another in only the clumsiest of ways. Just focusing on the right side would have generated enough suspense. The other half of the screen is used to show the ballet one of the characters is watching, suggesting that a) De Palma didn't know what to put on half the screen, b) De Palma is way too in love with the very obvious metaphor of a "dance" between two people or c) De Palma really likes this particular ballet and shoehorned it into the movie. I think the second two theories are accurate.
And, of course, the real heartbreaker: what little blood is shed in the movie is done via CGI. This is the man who dumped buckets of red stuff on Carrie White. The man who made John Cassavetes explode 13 consecutive times. How can he resort to pixelated blood, especially when it dulls the impact of arguably the film's most important moment? Say it ain't so, BDP.

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.
I liked enough of Passion, but I would be lying to call it a complete success. I find myself making excuses for it as a Brian De Palma fan in much the same way I walked out of The Black Dahlia convincing myself that it was a subversive success (a theory which I still hold to be true, and a big part of the reason I don't dare revisit the film). I have enough faith in the director to believe that there must be more "there" there. There are sequences that remind me of everything I love about De Palma, and plotting/thematic patterns that I suspect will improve on repeat viewings. Oh, and the final shot is a great one -- De Palma's rebuke of a motif he invented nearly 40(!) years ago in Carrie.

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.

What's best about Passion is its utter movie-ness. All of De Palma's thrillers are ultimately about their function as movies -- he doesn't deconstruct reality so much as reveal different versions of the truth. That's what movies do: tell us versions of the truth. In the words of Jean-Luc Godard, "Every cut is a lie."

No one cuts like De Palma.

21 comments:

  1. A lot of what you said about De Palma mirrors my feelings about George A. Romero (doubles!). His early work was so great (I even love Knightriders) that I still see everything he does and I inspect it thoroughly for flashes of what once was. Sometimes I can even convince myself that I see them. I listen to his interviews and commentary tracks and he still has so much passion, even for the recent Dead movies, that I'm sure that passion must be somewhere on the screen.

    Hell if I can find it, though.

    De Palma is fascinating, but Femme Fatale and Black Dahlia left me as cold as it sounds like this one will. I'll still see it, but I'm afraid I may be stacking the deck against it in my mind already. I'm trying to keep an open mind, but to me it's felt like he descended into self-parody several movies ago.

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    1. can you explain me the end of the movie please? So, Clarissa (twin sister) really exist? And what about the video tape that has been sent to inspector? Thank you so much

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    2. The way I remember it, (Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler) all of that stuff was a dream. Then she wakes up and realizes that she really did murder someone and still has to deal with that.

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  2. What a shame! I'll still watch Passion, of course, but will likely temper my expectations. Over the years De Palma has become one of my favorite directors. I enjoy his later movies (such as Femme Fatale), but he hasn't been as deep as he got on Carrie and Blow Out for some time (probably the last time was Casualties of War). I was hoping Passion would signal a turnaround, but even if it's second-rate De Palma I'll bet it's more interesting than most films out there.

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    1. I will forever contend that Femme Fatale was his last great movie. Some day I will have to write something about it.

      But, yeah, Passion is pretty much second-rate De Palma. It's more Snake Eyes than Blow Out. Curious to hear what you think when you see it.

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    2. Well, you know what I think of Snake Eyes, so maybe this will be the rapture after all...

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  3. Great review, Patrick - it spurred me to check out BDP's IMDB profile to see what else he's done and I have apparently been unknowingly avoiding his movies like crazy. I've seen Mission to Mars, Mission: Impossible, Casualties of War and Carrie and that's it. I like all of those (yep, even MtM) and downright love Carrie so I really need to dig into his work a bit more (especially Phantom of the Paradise) - based on your review, Passion will be pretty low on my list!

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    1. Yes! You must. Check out this list for a good primer. There is so much good stuff in his filmography, and none of it is Mission to Mars. Hope you find stuff you like.

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  4. Not sure I entirely agree with your review I'm afraid, especially about the split screen section which I thought was one of De Palma's most masterful of his ouevre. The whole point of the split-screen is that De Palma is misdirecting you about what you are seeing at the ballet and the timeline, and it is fundamentally key to the plot. Mallarmé's/Dubussy's 'Afternoon of the Faun' also links the poem/ballet to a key character and murder of another which tricks you about its timeline and key protaginists locations. The ballerina breaks the third wall, looking at you (the voyeur)in a manner both passionate and challenging. There are images and adverts of the ballet leading up to this scene, and the story behind Mallarmé's poem (the awakening of a faun and the faun's encounters with several nymphs in a dreamlike oration) is central to both to the plot of the story within Passion & the character, motivations & transformation of Isabella.

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  5. I just rented this on Amazon Instant Video, and have to say - I really, REALLY liked it. Rachel McAdams plays her character as a master of mind games, but who also has a bottomless well of need. And I thought Noomi Rapace was just right - her face is mostly blank throughout the film, which in context makes perfect sense to me. For most of the running time I'm constantly asking myself - who's playing who? The first half-hour conveys just how uneasy it can be to be in an unequal power relationship - McAdams doles out little nuggets of recognition and approval, and Rapace is constantly trying to interpret what it all means. "Anonymous" makes some great points about the ballet sequence (c'mom Anonymous - don't hide behind, um, anonymity). And that last shot really does stay with you. However, Patrick, you are absolutely right about the CGI blood - absolutely unforgivable. Where's Tom Savini when you need him?

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    1. Did I really just use "absolutely" twice in the same damn sentence? Now THAT'S unforgivable.

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  6. Steve K - some great comments (and yes I am 'Anonymous' - not posted on this site before so clearly don't know what I'm doing). The last scene is also classic De Palma, almost a culmination of everything he's achieved in his career, suspenseful with nods to Sisters, Raising Cain and Dressed to Kill but done differently at the same time. It's a dream (I think) but the body is real. I loved the surreal dreamineess of this movie too, the whole 'twin sister' thing (wearing the fallen model's green high heels) as a sign of guilt for what Isabella's done. Agree about the CGI blood though, Passion is possibly the most bloodless movie De Palma's ever done (with the exeption of Bonfire of the Vanities maybe)!

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    1. Good to meet you! One of the things I love about De Palma films is how rich they are visually. It seems every time I watch one I see something I never noticed before (like the green shoes, for example). And usually it's not some throwaway detail, but something that has special meaning for the movie. For example, in The Fury there's a scene pretty early on between Gillian and her mother. Pay attention to the nightstand next to Gillian's bed - there's a framed picture of her mother there. The pose in the photo says everything you need to know about their relationship.

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    2. Welcome, Trevor! Glad you figured out how to create an ID, because it's way more fun to talk to a real person. I dig all the De Palma talk.

      We may have to agree to disagree on the ballet sequence, because while you are clearly more educated on the actual dance being performed (which I appreciate), it still doesn't click with me. I get that it's misdirection, but it's mostly just that and it takes a long time to be that. Usually I'm on board for De Palma's stylistic detours, but this one felt gratuitous. And now I'm being a hypocrite, because they are almost ALWAYS gratuitous and that's one of the things I've always loved about them.

      Point taken on Isabelle's "transformation," but part of my problem with the movie is that I don't feel like we really see her transform. I won't say more for fear of spoilers, but there's nothing about her at the end of the movie that couldn't be true of her at the beginning, if that makes sense.

      But I do cop in the review to knowing that I need to see it again, because -- like Steve -- I didn't catch the green shoes and probably several other details that I look forward to revisiting. I don't know that it's ever going to be one of my favorite De Palma's, but there's still enough that I like about it that I'll come back to it a bunch I'm sure.

      The point is: let's keep talking about Brian De Palma, because it's the best.

      And Steve - now I have to watch The Fury again, so thank you.

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  7. I love certain De Palma movies, but only "like" De Palma, because I'm fucked up like that.

    I will check this out.

    And Patrick, good sir -- I have come to respect you a great deal, as a critic and writer, yet I must disagree with you. I feel Noomi Rapace has been very good in these parts; she is giving the performance she is asked to give. So I daresay -- even without seeing the flick -- that if she's a cipher, I bet it's by De Palma's design. Merely my couple Abes.

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    1. You may be right; she may be a cipher in the movie. I'm not really just basing this opinion on this one performance, though. We might just differ on our feelings about her as an actress. It's cool.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting and for the nice words, even if we are now totally fighting.

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    2. That's the thing; I honestly have no idea if she is and I'm simply guessing cause yeah, I like her. Maybe I'm absurdly quick to defend her cause I just saw her in Dead Man down and thought she was fairly awesome (I hear you pulling away, Patrick, come back!) in it.

      So yeah, maybe I also should wait to say something until I've seen it and am informed enough to discuss it intelligently.

      But I was born and raised in America, so screw that: you WRONG, Bromley. We are TOTALLY fighting now, of course ya know this means war, etc.
      It's Bar Wars time: who is Gary's?. . .and who is Cheers?. . .

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  8. It's great to have a good De Palma debate. That's the great thing about him, his films are so divisive, yet they warrant multiple viewings as there is so much more under the surface. It took me a good couple of viewings with Passion to work out what is/isn't a dream, and I loved also with Passion how De Palma throws in all the German Expressionism, (lines and shadows) and mirrored surfaces, doubles to confuse the viewer. He's done this throughout his career. When I first watched Black Dahlia, there was waaay too much going on to take it all in first time around - but the next viewing the story made far more sense, i.e. I loved the sleight of hand about the Baxter Fitch shooting, the 'earthquake' clue on the matchbox, the theatrical marionette like Ramona Linscott climax the back-drop of which which almost looks like she is on a theatre stage. Femme Fatale is another film that I get more out of the more times I see it. The clues are there in clear view throughout the film pointing you to the conclusion, but you dont see them the first time around: (the running water, the clocks always set to the same time, most of the core cast appreaing briefly in other scenes/roles, subtitles when people aren't speaking etc), they all guide us to a surreal dream. As you can tell I'm a massive De Palma fan, but also think his more recent output has been very unfairly maligned by critics. I like that De Palma stays true to himself. You always know when you are watching a De Palma film. He is one of the last true auteurs of pure visual cinema, repeating common themes throughout his films: voyeurism, technology, obsession, manipulation, deception, guilt, beautiful femme fatale’s, double's, heightened performances, overt artificiality, deliberate tonal shifts & stylistic flourishes, implausible coincidences, yet equally these are some of the very things he gets criticised for. Most other thrillers made thesedays could be made by anybody, (although I recently very much enjoyed Side Effects, which in itself is DePalma-esque and Hitchockian at the same time. I'm also looking forward to seeing Danny Boyle's Trance at some point), Anyway, enough of me waffling on...good to have an intelligent debate.

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  9. Steve - I'm also going to have to re-watch The Fury. I'd not noticed that scene before with the picture. The Fury's probably not my favorite De Palma flick, but it still has some outstanding set-pieces (I particularly love the suspenseful scene of Gillian's slo-mo escape from the Paragon Clinic - a classic De Palma set-piece).

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  10. Ending scene explanation for dummies :
    - Isabelle was at her last wits and her life was crumbling down in front of her eyes as she killed Dani and since Dani sent the videos she knew her life was over.
    - so in order to find justification in her actions and "relieve" her of her guilt, she DREAMS of Clarissa ( twin sister killing herself) kind of like a full circle in the plot.
    - if that really did happen the way Isabelle dreamt it then she would've been fulfilled in her guiltiness and finally freed from her pain.
    -BUT as the twist ending shot shown, Isabelle awakens and finds herself in the SAME situation that she left ----A murderer, a double murderer now in deeper sh!$ because the videos the implicate her are sent and she has no more tricks or ideas left in her bag.
    - and having to deal with that "REALITY" (real life) is going to be even more pain and agony then she could've ever dream of.
    - now that is the real twist/theme to the ending.

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  11. I liked this movie a lot. I will forever hate Noomi Rapace or whatever she is called. Her character was ridiculous and she was the biggest cry baby imaginable. To kill someone because they embarrassed you for sleeping with their boyfriend, is so insane. She deserved to be humiliated and she couldnt take it! She was very unstable. Maybe I just favor Christine because I am in love with Rachel McAdams. Either way, Christine was THE BOSS of Isabelle, and its something Isabelle couldnt get over. Now shes going to prison for life, as she should. The ending was very confusing, but I figured it out. She dreamed the twin was killing her. And Dirk didnt know Christine well enough to say that Clarissa never existed. I believe she truly got hit by the truck as a child. Although, the blue heels are very curious to me. I guess itll remain a question unanswered. I love Christines character a lot and I hate that she was killed. BUT thats why you shouldnt leave your door unlocked so anyone can waltz right in your home and slash your throat. All in all, great film. Different, and unique. xoxo ☆

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