Brian De Palma is a filmmaking god in my eyes, and my equal favourite director (along with Martin Scorsese and David Lynch), so it should come as no surprise that his latest film “Passion” was my most anticipated film of 2013. His previous two films fell significantly short of what I was used to from this great director (even though “The Black Dahlia” improves with each watch), so when De Palma announced that his latest film was going to be a return to the genre he is a master at, I was beyond excited. De Palma’s greatest films have all been thrillers, from “Dressed To Kill”, “Blow Out” and “Body Double”, so to see him go back and potentially give us another classic in this genre was mouth watering. Then came the catch; “Passion” was actually a remake of the French film “Crime D’Amour” by director Alain Corneau. “Crime D’Amour” was a film that I hated and thought for a thriller, had very little thrills in it, so my immediate excitement for this new De Palma project took an early hit. However once the film premiered at Toronto back in 2012, it was made very clear that De Palma had taken this material and made it his own.
The film is set against the backdrop of a high powered advertising agency where two of its most important employees find themselves in a battle of power and office politics. What starts off as a beneficial “friendship” between Christine, the boss of the firm, and Isabelle, her very talented protégé, soon turns into a very intense rivalry that initially starts with a theft of credit over an idea but quickly escalates into public humiliation and murder.
What surprised me most about “Passion” was just how true it was to “Crime D’Amour” and its original story. Both films have the same dramatic beats, but thankfully De Palma is able to infuse the story with a sense of fun, making “Passion” anything but a chore to sit through. Do not be fooled by going into this film thinking that you will be watching a serious dramatic thriller because you will be sorely disappointed if you do, instead understand that this is De Palma having fun within the genre, and this unpretentious quality serves the film well. De Palma understands the ridiculousness of the story he is presenting and thus the film never takes itself too seriously. A comparison with another film from De Palma’s oeuvre, “Passion” is much more along the lines of “Raising Cain”, than the serious political thriller “Blow Out”.
Much has already been made about the fact that “Passion” is really a film of two halves and it is in the second half of the film that De Palma makes it all his own. After one of the characters has a serious emotional breakdown, she turns to the help of drugs to get her through, and it is here the film diverts from the original film and visually from what has come before it. Due to the fact that this character is struggling to work out what is real and what are dreams, the film begins to work almost in a dream logic sense as De Palma’s regular themes and fetishes suddenly find themselves entering the world of “Passion”. The film becomes full of dreams, dreams within dreams, identity confusion, twins and murder. From a visual standpoint, this is when all of De Palma’s tricks finally become the star of the show too: split-screen, split diopter shots, dutch angles, slow motion, he opens the whole bag and uses each one of them all brilliantly.
De Palma hired Pedro Almodovar’s regular cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine to perform the same duties for him on “Passion” and his work here is wonderful. The lighting that is seen in the first half of the film is what you would normally associate Alcaine’s work with Almodovar, it is very simple and brightly lit which makes all of the colours within the film bloom and stand out. Once the second half begins, all the colour of the film is drained, and “Passion” then becomes a visually dark film. Sunlight disappears from the film altogether and suddenly shadows are everywhere. The second half of the film is shot like an old 1940’s film noir, particularly with the constant presence of shadows made from the slats of unseen horizontal blinds. For a film that started out quite subdued visually, it ends in quite a display of visual pyrotechnics with complicated shots and strange angles becoming the norm. As you would expect though, Alcaine handles himself admirably through both parts of the film.
The casting of “Passion” is really interesting in the fact that when I first heard that Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace had been hired for the parts of Isabelle and Christine, I initially envisioned them both in the opposite roles they ended up playing. Christine is a manipulative and very bitchy boss willing to use anyone as long as it benefits her; I honestly didn’t realize that McAdams had this in her but she is fantastic here. She is really believable playing this very nasty person that the audience will find easy to despise, she really plays against type of her “All-American Girl” persona she seems to have made for herself. Meanwhile, Rapace is so well known for playing such strong female characters (particularly Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) that it is initially a shock to see her playing Isabelle; an emotionally fragile girl who is not at all confident in her abilities especially in a large group of people. Personally I believe that Rapace’s performance is the highlight of “Passion” particularly the scene when she has her big breakdown in the car park. The entire scene is done in one lengthy shot that starts in her office, continues into an elevator and all the way to her car; the whole time Isabelle is getting more and more distraught. What is so brilliant about her performance here is that she does not overplay the scene, she is actually quite restrained until the big breakdown itself which makes it all the more heartbreaking. Noomi Rapace’s performance in “Passion” is yet another example of why she is currently considered one of the best actresses working today.
One way that Brian De Palma altered “Passion” for the better in comparison to “Crime D’Amour” is with the character of Dani, who is played by German actress Karoline Herfurth. Dani is Isabelle’s assistant and in this version of the film she ends up playing a big part in the actual proceedings of the tale. In the original film, the assistant character is actually a man named Daniel and is really just a minor character that has little to do. In “Passion”, Dani is madly in love with Isabelle and because of this will do anything for her. While her performance is not quite to the level of McAdams and Rapace, Herfurth does a fine job in the role of Dani, and I just adored her hairstyle in this.
Whatever you think of “Passion”, if you are a De Palma fan of any kind, you are going to be blown away with the last ten minutes of this film. Seriously, it makes the whole film worth it; I was giddy after seeing this scene. Without a doubt, it is the best moment De Palma has created in arguably twenty years. It is a perfectly created suspense sequence that just ends the film on an absolute high. Sure, it is as derivative as hell (if you are a fan of the man’s work, you will notice a number of techniques and shots from previous films) but it is pure De Palma and it has been immaculately put together. There are so many little pieces to this sequence, so many shots and bits of film to put together to make this thing work, but De Palma is just so in control of it all and proves that he has lost none of his talent. Most impressive is just how perfectly edited this sequence is and how it fits Pino Donaggio’s very familiar score liked a (leather bound) glove. Speaking of Donaggio, there is another reason to celebrate the release of “Passion” because it is the first time in twenty years that Donaggio has scored one of Brian De Palma’s films (“Raising Cain” from 1992 was there previous collaboration) and as usual he has created another memorable and thrilling score.
So are there any negatives in regards to “Passion”? Well frankly “yes” would be the simple answer. With the exception of the leads, most of the performances are rather poor and stilted. Some of De Palma’s dialogue is shoddy at best, and entire scenes don’t seem to fit the picture at all. One scene I felt that was incredibly odd was when Christine was explaining to Isabelle a tragedy from her childhood and the fact that because of it she has never felt loved since. It just seems to come from nowhere and her sudden pining for love seemed strange. I get the fact that Christine is being manipulative, it is just the scene doesn’t start on a realistic level. As beautiful as the film looks, I must admit that I was also disappointed that De Palma didn’t exploit the beauty of some of the Berlin architecture. During production, location photos hit the internet and looking at those buildings you got the sense they were going to be used a lot differently then they ended up being.
Overall, while I was not totally blown away by “Passion”, it was still an incredibly fun movie and one with immense re-watch value. What did blow me away, though, was that final scene which to date is the single best scene I have watched in 2013 and an indication of just how much talent Brian De Palma still has in him. It was great to see the master back near the top of his game after a couple of misses with “Redacted” and “The Black Dahlia”. This is not a film trying to say anything, there is no message (although I was impressed at the way De Palma looked at modern technology and the way it effects our lives today), this is a film that has been made by a director in total control of his art with a purpose to just entertain his audience, and he certainly achieves that; Brian De Palma’s “Passion” is fun, fun, fun.