Director/Coscreenwriter: Brian De Palma
By Roderick Heath
Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).
De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.
De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.
De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.
De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.
The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.
One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.
Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.
Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.
The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.
De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.
But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.
So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.