IN-DEPTH LOOKS AT SPLIT-DIOPTER SHOT, SPLIT-SCREEN, ETC.
Chris O'Neill, who programmed and presented Brian De Palma's Passion at its Irish theatrical premiere this past July at Triskel Christchurch, has posted an in-depth essay about that film at Experimental Conversations. This thoughtful piece on Passion focuses on several aspects of the film, including a specific split diopter shot (the rest of this post may contain SPOILERS -
De Palma has a masterful ability to fill a frame with multiple visual elements, yet he can still balance conveying essential narrative information with details that enrich the film as a whole. His use of the split diopter lens, which allows for the image to display separate depths of field in one shot, is relatively restrained in Passion yet is subtly effective in what it achieves. In one sequence there are three points of focus in a single shot. Dirk lies in bed smoking a cigarette. He is framed in the foreground on the left hand side. In the background, Isabelle stands in the bathroom with her back to the camera. Isabelle's face is reflected in a large mirror, while other ornamental objects are either situated on the bathroom counter or seen as reflections in the mirror from the other side of the room. In the dialogue exchange between the two characters, Isabelle learns more about Dirk's relationship with Christine, and discovers Christine's adventurous sex life which includes a variety of sex aids including a strap-on and a Venetian carnival mask modelled on her own features. This sequence runs a little over two minutes, but within this limited amount of time De Palma conveys the interior design of Dirk's home which reflects aspects of his personality (an ornament shaped like a penis, a sculpture of an obedient dog), Dirk's contemptuous attitude towards Christine ("Whatever Christine wants, she gets"), Isabelle's inquisitive nature ("What's it like with her?" she asks before rooting through a drawer full of sex aids), and the toys that Christine uses with Dirk that reflect dominance (the strap-on) and narcissism (the mask).
O'Neill closes by framing Passion within the context of De Palma's recent late-career cinematic freedom (having no need to prove himself at this late stage), and also contrasts its dream elements with those of Raising Cain:
De Palma uses dream sequences in many of his films but he rarely lets on that they are dreams until the climax of the scene snaps the narrative back into waking reality. This is usually announced with a blatant 'waking from a nightmare' moment of a character starting bolt upright and screaming in their bed. Such sequences, however, tend to be isolated set pieces rather than central elements in the narrative structure. A possible reason for this is that for many years De Palma was concerned about pushing the audience a step too far and causing them to reject the whole premise of a film. An example of this is his 1992 picture Raising Cain. As scripted, that film had numerous dreams within dreams but the film was re-edited for clarification after it tested poorly at preview screenings.
However, since going into self-imposed exile from the Hollywood studio system following Mission To Mars (2000), De Palma has been working on smaller scale independent productions, many of them based in Europe. A director of his stature no longer has anything to prove, and producers approach him knowing his previous work and, therefore, his quirks and capabilities. Thanks to this freedom, De Palma has been indulging in more playful and challenging cinematic techniques. The 'alternative universe' scenario of Femme Fatale (2002) is a good example of this, where a large section of the narrative is in fact the lead character's premonition, warning her where life will lead if she makes the wrong decision. With Passion, he returns to the initial dream-within-dream concept of Raising Cain and this time goes through with it, seemingly unconcerned if the audience sometimes gets lost. The constant twists, red herrings and false endings are disorientating on initial viewing, but subsequent viewings reveal a precise logic behind these overlapping elements. For example, on revisiting the film it becomes noticeable that images in the dream sequences are marked out by a much heavier blue tint than is used in the remainder of the film. It is clear that De Palma is having fun with the form, and he saves a final laugh for the very end: the screen cuts to black and ‘The End' appears in simple white lettering before the closing credits roll. This title playfully anticipates a collective sigh of relief from the audience: there will be no more bewildering twists and turns. It's over, the viewer can finally relax.