STEPHEN SAITO: "DE PALMA'S MOST GLEEFULLY PLEASURABLE FILM SINCE 'FEMME FATALE'
As Brian De Palma's Passion gets set to make it's USA premiere tonight at the New York Film Festival, here's a quick round-up of some of the reviews coming out of the fest. Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich says De Palma is "in fine form" here, adding that "fans will take to this razor-sharp satire like a knife to a pulsing throat." While the New York Times' A.O. Scott feels that the film "works hard to achieve perversity," Tony Dayoub says it's "a fun, twisty-turvy throwback to his 80s thrillers that has to be seen to be believed." (See Dayoub's full review at Cinema Viewfinder.)
Slant's Ed Gonzalez says Passion is a "return to form" for De Palma. "Passion is a serpentine, gorgeously orchestrated gathering of all of De Palma's pet themes and conceits," Gonzalez writes, "a symphony of giddy terror where people perpetually hide behind masks, both literal and figurative, hallucinations are nested in dreams, and images within images become tools of aggression, all set to a remarkable Pino Donaggio score that's one part Max Steiner, two parts Bernard Herrmann, and at least three parts Phil Collins."
The Moveable Fest's Stephen Saito says Passion is De Palma's "most gleefully pleasurable film" since Femme Fatale, adding that De Palma takes Alain Corneau's Love Crime "and turns it into something decidedly more European." Saito feels that the style of the film's first half is overdone, perhaps as a way to cover up "a skimpy plot," adding that "the film never resembles a recognizable reality."
"Though both leads appear to be game for anything the film has in store for them – the sex toys, the sapphic advances, the Kabuki masks – only McAdams seems to truly be in on the joke," writes Saito, "relishing every every double entendre or double cross to pass through her perfectly affixed ruby red lips. However, Rapace, sans the nosering and the body ink from Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, continues to suggest what was so effective in portraying rebellious posturing once can be frustratingly stiff elsewhere. To some degree, Rapace’s limited range of emotiveness works as cool detachment after she attempts to liberate herself from the hierarchy of her workplace, but it’s only when her character begins to loosen up that the film can too, even as her stare remains frozen.
"Once Passion kicks into its second gear, it’s as if DePalma finds his compass, his peerless sense of geography once again evident in navigating a gnarled plot as it unravels, presented elegantly in the physical spaces where it unfolds. Shamelessly overwrought yet carefully constructed, it’s at once an acknowledgement of the times and the work of a true master."
Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky says that Passion amplifies Corneau's story "into an endless hall of mirrors and cameras, screens within screens, monitors of different shapes and sizes; this does not just create a sense of ever-shifting paranoia but makes Christine and Isabelle less flesh-and-blood characters than refracted and recorded images of themselves—and thus as untrustworthy as facsimiles."
For Koresky, "Passion is light on its feet," despite the self-referential subtext running throughout. "Artificiality is the name of the distinctively De Palma game here," writes Koresky, "from the workplace-as-fashion-catwalk aesthetic to the satisfying archness of the two lead performances. McAdams, who, perhaps because of her wholesome, enormous facial features, is often asked to turn on the good-girl charm, is effectively reprising her bitch shtick from Mean Girls here, and it’s a welcome return. With her little-girl voice and transparent pout, she always seems like a high-schooler playing dress-up, an essential disparity that many will scoff as 'bad casting,' but which ultimately highlights the superficiality and stunted-growth mindset of the milieu: after all, these are sophisticates who have to tap into their inner tween to properly appeal to the public’s craving for stuff, with the American market their ultimate goal (Christine is angling for a New York transfer from her German office). Rapace, who heavily rehearsed her deer-in-headlights look in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is called upon to radiate blandness, and her plasticky chipmunk facelessness only grows more frighteningly serene as the film progresses to its Grand Guignol final half-hour."
Koresky later describes the cinematography by José Luis Alcaine as "a mixture of blinding-white austerity and seductive panache," adding that "the exquisite-corporate visuals of Passion eloquently provide backdrop for the escalating one-upmanship enacted by these two backstabbers."
Koresky concludes his review with these two paragraphs:
"If it’s difficult to tell what’s business and what’s personal in the film’s intricate set-up, it’s even harder to separate reality from fantasy as the film slithers along to its boffo third act. Here is where De Palma breaks most drastically from Corneau’s film, plummeting down a rabbit hole of delirium that proves he was just using the original narrative as a basic skeleton to indulge in the ridiculous sublime. Whereas Corneau set his narrative up in a clinical and cold-blooded manner (perfectly acceptable for the sleek austerity of the setting), De Palma plunges into excess, positing the characters’ actions as dreams within dreams, and using nightmarishly canted frames and elegant split-screens to toy with both the audience’s perspective and his characters’ subjectivity (Pino Donaggio’s driving, tango-ish score begins to have an identity crisis of its own, starting to sample bits from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, foreshadowing a thrillingly staged ballet scene). There’s an audacity to this that elevates it far above matters of style: De Palma is making pliable a rigidly established film that had clear emotional in and out points, reconfiguring its emotional makeup in a way that confuses, or even rejects, easy identification—with both character and reality.
"In a sense, this is the most apt form of remake, digging in with both hands and finding the material’s potential to be something else. Passion might at first appear to be Love Crime’s identical other, but just as Christine might never have actually had the twin sister she claims to have tragically lost in a suspiciously heartfelt monologue, appearances can be deceiving, and the truth can be double-edged. In the final half-hour, Passion barely resembles Love Crime at all, preferring instead to reconfigure the climax of De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill, itself a hyper-stylized, übersexual reimagining of Psycho, into a bizarre, free-associative nightmare. One could read the final segment as a main character’s guilt-stricken fever dream leading straight to hell, or simply as De Palma’s confession that all cinema is remake. Either way, in the movies we’re living on borrowed time."
The L Magazine's Jesse Hassenger suggests that within De Palma's filmography, Passion completes a "thesis-in-waiting trilogy" with fellow indulgent "one-for-me palate-cleansers" Raising Cain and Femme Fatale. "The NYFF notes unblinkingly refer to Passion as De Palma's 'first fiction feature since Femme Fatale,' such a perverse twist on the word 'fiction' that it almost makes a De Palmian kind of sense," writes Hassenger. "Redacted (2007) is a dramatization of real life events but in no way an actual documentary, while The Black Dahlia (2006) is even further from the non-fiction designation, as a narrative film adopted from a novel based on a true story."
Hassenger continues, "Actually, maybe the NYFF should've outright reversed its play on words; I get the feeling that to De Palma, movies like Passion are non-fiction. But to anyone else, the first 30-40 minutes of Passion will appear stilted (at least in terms of concerns secondary to De Palma like dialogue and behavior), albeit fascinatingly. Rachel McAdams, dressed in a series of weirdly unflattering outfits (high-waisted pants, turtleneck blouses), plays Christine, head of a powerful ad agency, or consulting company, or something; the point is, she's the boss of Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), and they engage in an ongoing friendship-slash-competition, with plenty of flirting-slash-backstabbing. The suspense of the movie has little to do with whether Isabelle will receive credit for her mobile-phone ad idea or which working woman of the world will have revenge; rather, film geeks will reach the edge of their seats wondering when, exactly, De Palma will uncork.
"When he does, it's a feast of fetishized style: the directorial control of the first section gives way to canted angles, noirish blind shadows, POV shots, long takes, and a bravura trick of a split-screen sequence. The movie has plenty of showstoppers in its back half, but one of the most interesting doesn't contain any of the director's signature shocks of violence; the camera just follows Rapace out of her office, into an elevator, to her car in a parking garage, and into a fit of deep frustration and rage. All together, the movie isn't quite as nutty as Cain nor as movie-drunk as Fatale, but it's of their ilk: diabolical, a little deranged. Like De Palma's other palate-cleansers, it's more about its creator than its creations. Plus, there's nothing like seeing a De Palma picture with an audience of film critics; when it sees proper release, it's virtually guaranteed that the non-joke line "you have a twin sister?" will elicit knowing laughter."
TrustMovies' James van Maanen thinks Passion is "a lot of fun -- perhaps even more so for those of us (many, I would wager) who have already seen the earlier version. As a stylist, M. Corneau was quiet in the extreme (Love Crime was all icy blues and greys -- as icy as its leading lady, Kristin Scott Thomas -- particularly its interiors, which were 'corporate' to a fault.) De Palma, as usual, goes so over the top that you can't (and wouldn't want to) take your eyes off the screen. All or many of his signature tropes are here, from that huge staircase seen from above to the sudden, bloody slash of the knife, from fetish objects to twins. Not that he was the first to make use of any of these, but few have used them better."
And it wouldn't be as fun if we didn't include any of the purely negative reviews, right? Quiet Earth's Griffith Maloney says Passion is "a wreck" that "has an absolutely cop out ending." And Flixist's Hubert Vigilla says Passion is "heroically bad," adding that all the film "mustered from me were confused shakes of the head, a couple facepalms, and unintentional laughs. It's like some kind of anti-alchemy. It turns quality actors into histrionic amateurs, eroticism into slapstick." Yet, writes Vigilla, "Here's the weirdest thing: I can't hate a movie like Passion. It's so lovably awful, so bafflingly silly. That's what the movie is more than anything else: silly. It's like a dachshund wearing pearls and four tiny high heels. I had a good time watching it, giggling as the actors vamped to salvage the film. This is less like classic De Palma and more like Tommy Wiseau's homage to Brian De Palma. But you can't hate something like that. De Palma diehards will love this, though. They'll enjoy the excesses, the camp, the oodles of self-reference, the exercises in style. De Palma, at the very least, has succeeded in satisfying them."