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Monday, February 16, 2015

I thought I had covered all of the 2013 top ten and best-of lists that included Brian De Palma's Passion with three posts from about a year ago: January 2, 2014, January 8, 2014, and February 6, 2014. However, I should have known to check the individual lists of the critics from Cahiers du Cinéma. Even though Passion did not make the magazine's final top 10 for 2013, De Palma's film did appear on three of the individual lists. Here they are:

Nicolas Azalbert

1.  Educação sentimental
2.  La Vie d'Adèle
3.  L'Inconnu du lac
4.  Spring Breakers
5.  Frances Ha
6.  La fille de nulle part
7.  Passion
8.  La Fille du 14 juillet
9.  Camille Claudel, 1915
10. No  

Jean-Sébastien Chauvin

1.  Lincoln
2.  Shokuzai
3.  La fille de nulle part
4.  Les Rencontres d'après minuit
5.  Passion
6.  L'Inconnu du lac
7.  La jalousie
8.  Cloud Atlas
9.  Gravity
10. La Vie d'Adèle  

Stéphane du Mesnildot

1.  The Immigrant
2.  L'Inconnu du lac
3.  Shokuzai
4.  Passion
5.  The Grandmaster
6.  Les Rencontres d'après minuit
7.  Gravity
8.  La Vie d'Adèle
9.  Django Unchained
10. Le Congrès  

Posted by Geoff at 12:10 AM CST
Updated: Monday, February 16, 2015 12:26 AM CST
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Monday, November 24, 2014
Ute Bergk, the set decorator on Brian De Palma's Passion, was interviewed recently by Travis Bean at Film Colossus. Bergk's work on Passion was the main focus of the discussion. Discussing how production on the film was on-and-off for years, Bergk tells Bean, "There was a point where [De Palma] was thinking, 'Oh, we’ll do it all in London.' And then I mentioned all the cars would be driving on the left side, and he didn’t like that at all."

I'm posting a lot of the highlights from the interview below, but you might as well just go read the entire thing at Film Colossus-- it's a very engaging interview, and is almost exclusively about Passion.


Discussing how she came to be the set decorator on Passion, Bergk tells Bean, "The Production Designer Cornelia Ott, who is a friend of mine, she got the script and got me involved, and we budgeted over and over and over again, because they couldn’t make up their minds where they wanted to shoot, and they had certain actors in mind that didn’t kick in at the right time, at the right point.

"So it was at least over a year before we got storyboards from Brian De Palma. Which were brilliant! He does them all himself. And it’s like a Bible. Because the film took so much time to kick off, he worked them over and over again, so when the filming finally started, it was so straightforward. He had it all planned out. It was fascinating. It was really precise.

"He’s one of these directors that just knows: he’s coming in in the morning, he’s not saying anything, and he’s working with people who he trusts for whatever reasons, and he’s just watching them work for a little while, and then he asks if everybody is ready, and he starts to shoot."


A little later in the discussion, Bean asks, "So if Brian (is it OK if I call him Brian?) is coming on set and not talking to many people, is he talking to you? Or is it pre-planned, where he’s talking to you beforehand? Or is it more organic, where you get there and set things up?"

Bergk replies, "It’s very planned. He never arrives anywhere without expectations. He knows exactly how the room will be set up before he gets there. We would present it all in little models or sketches or photos. And for every location he would have a little folder, and we would explain, 'This is the sofa she sits on,' etc. Like in one of the offices, where you see the white arrangement of very sophisticated white leather sofas: 'This is where the Japanese board is going to sit.' Very rarely will he say, 'Oh, I don’t like this at all.' It’s usually the other way around. And because the arrangements are so classic, you kind of go that route and not allow yourself to be off stylistically. You don’t want to go overly pop, or overly sophisticated."


In one enlightening passage of the interview, Bergk tells Bean about meeting with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine: "I remember that Jose came in, and obviously we did not know each other when we started, and that working relationship came into play very quickly. Because the moment Noomi (Rapace, playing Isabelle) was confirmed for the film, I got a call saying, 'We start prepping ASAP.' Now basically.

"And I said, 'Really? Finally?!'

"And of course, off we went, and Jose came in. José was always trying to discuss things with Brian, which was quite funny, because Brian would always make excuses, like, 'I’ve got to go to the dentist.' Because I think Brian totally trusted him and what he was going to do. So he didn’t want to control him whatsoever. And that was great. That’s why it was so good to work on this movie, because there was freedom.

"And so, I had this long meeting with José and went through all the practicals, which was quite important for the whole film, because, at that point, I wasn’t very knowledgeable of Brian De Palma and unaware of how important all of that is. Because there are sequences, for example, where the entire scene is basically lit by the practicals. And if you see the two different offices (Isabelle and Christine, played by Rachel McAdams), one is white, and one is white-and-black. And if you look closer at what there is in terms of practicals, it’s totally different.

"We had this glass desk in Christine’s office because we wanted to see her legs. And it’s all very sexy and round…and a bit bitchy. Isabelle’s office is the other way around: it’s all very cruel, almost frozen. You see this black, bold standing light in the background, which is pretty much what I thought was her. And it’s a very complicated light fitting because it’s lit in a very complicated way, but José liked it because, for all the dream sequences, he used this black-and-white lighting, which that light fixture naturally gives him.

"And that was a very interesting discussion! I’d never had that before. But obviously that was so important for the whole film. The more time you spend with these guys, the more you get into it. You learn what’s important, that you have to find just the right standing light to place next to Isabel’s bed during her dream sequence. That took me weeks to find!"


When asked by Bean where she went to find decorations for Passion, Bergk replies, "It depends where you are. Passion was shot in Berlin, and we didn’t shoot many sets in the studio. We built a few additions to existing locations, and we’d incorporate architectural details. But the thing with Berlin is: it’s not such an advanced industry, as it is in London [where Bergk resides]. Berlin does not really have facilities.

"So, for Passion, it was all very contemporary. It’s not like you had to do lots of research into some period details. It was contemporary, it was very classic. If you work with Brian De Palma, you know that you have to have mirrors. You will see the ceiling, which is very unusual, because a lot of directors don’t show the ceiling in movies at all. So that’s a very interesting research subject actually: who is looking up in the film?

"And because the style was contemporary, most of the stuff you see is available in shops. It’s very high-class furnishing. In the first scene you see a sofa in Christine’s apartment, and that’s one I had made, which was possibly the most expensive piece of furnishing in the entire film. But I thought it was worth it—there was something existing and I adopted it, changing its color and shape. This kind of film is not rough. It’s a very delicate film.

"There’s this nice sequence where they’re sitting in front of a huge television and a character gets drunk, and he gets drunk on a Fendi, a luxurious settee—and it is so uncomfortable. I saw it in an exhibition. To sit on it is fine, but to get drunk on it is very uncomfortable. It’s not like a sofa that you fall into. And he was supposed to fall into it, but he couldn’t because it has wooden a frame. So when he does fall into it, he makes this sounds like [insert uncomfortable *oomph* sound effect], which is exactly what was needed for this sequence. So that was a good find."


The interview ends with a discussion of the ballet sequence in Passion:


I feel obligated to ask about the ballet sequence, just because it makes me giggle with excitement every time I watch it. I know in the actual ballet studio, there isn’t a lot in there, it’s mostly blue and white walls. Did you contribute anything specific to that sequence? Working with the idea that it would be displayed partly on a split-screen? Or that there would be a lot of empty space to deal with?

Ute Bergk

It was actually more of the other way around. I sent you a video, did you get it?


Yeah yeah, I watched it!

Ute Bergk

That was the original version of the performance. There’s a foundation behind it, and you are very much controlled by this foundation. The choreographer came over from the States and she was very controlling about everything. If you see, in the black and white footage I sent you, in the beginning, the curtain is on a pole and goes up, above the stage, which is where we shot. It was quite difficult to do, because we had this theater setting and everything just goes up, and not up and around. And we had to do it that way. They had to see that pole going up. So we had to build a structure to do that with.

Basically, you have to find the right materials. We had to slim it down because we shot it on a quiet part of the stage, which is in the Renaissance Theater, which is not big at all. So there was a model built that was put into this existing space. And to drape white fabric without having any frills in it is not easy.

The whole ballet sequence—we knew it would be very important, so we shot it for three days in that theater with those two wonderful dancers. And it was crystal clear that the stage design at that point was part of what the story tells. And specifically, in that performance, the audience is the mirror. They dance behind their exercise rails to warm up, and what is behind is basically nothing. It’s like a rehearsel room. And all you see is the door they come in and a window. And that’s all. The rest is up to them. And that was as simple as is. Brian, at that point, was just focused on the dancers.


Well definitely. They’re looking right into the camera, and effectively looking right at you. I’m fascinated by that aspect of the film. Not only the characters are being watched—he’s looking right at the audience and acknowledging their presence in the movie.

Ute Bergk

It was a very artistic approach, obviously. To have the audience as the third part, see that in certain kinds of artwork, like Manet’s paintings for example. The artist plays with the subject as well. So it’s very interesting to address it in that way—it’s a very De Palma style of filmmaking to address the audience. And then the split screen…I still get goosebumps thinking about it.


Posted by Geoff at 11:23 PM CST
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Friday, October 17, 2014
Christopher Cole has written a terrifically insightful piece at Clothes On Film about the clothes in Brian De Palma's Passion, with details and quotes from the film's costume designer, Karen Muller-Serreau. Cole is particularly interested in the power dynamics at play in the film. "Ice-blonde Christine is a Grace Kelly lookalike who craves attention," Cole states, "usually wearing the most noticeable colour in the room; the solid colours help her stand out without patterns to get in the way."

Here's an excerpt from the article:
Muller-Serreau says she wanted to give Rachel a “contemporary Hitchcockian feeling with shapes that have a modern vintage style in bold colours.” Christine begins the film in an ice-blue shirt and palazzo pants combo topped off by a blueberry-vanilla coloured scarf tied artfully around her neck, while Isabelle’s black dress shirt and pants pop against the white walls and light-coloured furniture of Christine’s house. She has to be dominant so she gives the scarf as a gift to Isabelle, wrapping the blueberry-vanilla scarf around Isabelle’s neck; it stands out against her black coat.

The following morning, Christine struts her stuff down the path in her front yard in a double-breasted blood-red overcoat that would scare the bejeezus out of Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964); Christine looks like a spoilt little rich girl about to be chauffeured to private school. If Christine sometimes looks like a child playing dress-up, there’s a scene late in the film where she wears a striking black overcoat worn with a wide-brimmed hat, round sunglasses and teal stiletto sandals. It’s a coat that Muller-Serreau wanted to look like a little girl’s coat, so she based it on a classic child’s coat since Christine’s twin sister died in childhood.

Isabelle, the second-in-command, wears black for most of the film signalling her lack of identity. Since Muller-Serreau didn’t have colour to work with for Isabelle, she gave her shape and texture. There’s a suit jacket with heavy shoulder pads that hint at Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) and a side-breasted military jacket she wears when she has the upper hand. Her Edith Head hairstyle, fringe and all, helps make her look like she stepped out of an old movie.

One particularly inspiring moment is when an angry, depressed Isabelle at an office reception wears a black dress shirt and pants with a black tie. Underneath the slightly sheer shirt is a black bra. She’s dressed in a stereotypical male outfit, but despite the butch quality of the outfit, she still wants to be desired sexually as a feminine woman. Muller-Serreau says Isabelle’s look was supposed to be a “uniform”, presenting Isabelle as a “soldier” — a soldier who wants to be seen as a sexy woman.

While Isabelle wears only one colour, her assistant Dani wears many colors, and is the only person who threatens Christine’s status as the most colourful person in the room. She often wears animal prints and sometimes pairs it with clashing horizontal stripes. Her costumes are meant to garner attention, like the denim daisy dukes she wears paired with tights and knee-high stiletto boots, and an asymmetrically zipped purple leather motorcycle jacket. However, she also achieves elegance in a violet lace shirt. It’s a look Muller Serreau describes as “feminine and sexy” and that it’s a departure from the “butch lesbian cliché.”

Dirk wears braces with his pinstripe suits and checkered suits; the braces hark back to a much earlier era. His costumes consist of all suits, except for when he wears a tank top in his bedroom post-coital. Lying on a bed, his thin frame is more evident here, making him appear more vulnerable. He confesses secrets while smoking in a cigarette, becoming more feminine in his gestures and voice: he seems to be imitating Christine when he tells Isabelle that the blueberry-vanilla scarf looks better on her. It’s a perfect example of how men are emasculated in this film, and how the characters are much different in private.


Posted by Geoff at 3:20 AM CDT
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Posted by Geoff at 6:49 PM CDT
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Thursday, March 20, 2014
Brian De Palma's Passion has made yet another list of the best films of 2013, this one from a "ragtag band of scattered cinephiles" that strives to "recognize noteworthy achievements from the previous year in cinema, unswayed by awards-season hype." Together, they vote for the Muriel Awards. The 2013 list features several ties, including Passion, tied with Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives at number 42. Each of the films had three votes. The Golden Muriel for 2013 went to Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, with 32 votes.

Posted by Geoff at 12:02 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:04 AM CDT
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Posted by Geoff at 11:09 AM CDT
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Posted by Geoff at 1:24 AM CST
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Posted by Geoff at 6:12 PM CST
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Brian De Palma's Passion will be included as part of a film series at the Seoul Art Cinema. According to the Korea Herald's Claire Lee, the series is called "Parallax", and runs March 11 through April 13. Lee's Herald article states, "Seoul Art Cinema will screen 22 modern films it thinks are important or severely underrated. The featured filmmakers include Brian De Palma, Nanni Moretti, Abbas Kiarostami and Takashi Miike." Other filmmaker names in the series include Olivier Assayas and Bruno Dumont.

Posted by Geoff at 12:57 AM CST
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Thursday, February 27, 2014
Sight & Sound's Brad Stevens reviews Brian De Palma's Passion, linking it with Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt, both of which have been recently released in the U.K. as straight-to-video titles. "For many years," Stevens states, "the phrase ‘straight to video’ had the force of an insult, generally being used to describe ‘B’ movies not good enough for theatrical distribution. Yet, at least in the UK, ‘straight to video’ initially meant something quite different, often referring to films considered too quirky for mainstream audiences." Stevens writes that as DVD took over from VHS, in the U.K., more and more of those unique films not getting theatrical distribution would simply receieve "no UK distribution whatsoever."

Stevens continues, "In recent months, however, the situation appears to have changed, with two works by important American directors – Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt (2011) and Brian De Palma’s Passion (2013) – making their UK debuts on DVD (thanks to Metrodome). The fortuitous juxtaposition of these titles underlines how much they have in common, both being concerned with the ways in which modern communications technology has obscured the distinction between reality and fantasy. Their endings, in which the protagonists appear to dream or imagine their own murders before awaking into a reality which may itself be a fantasy, are strikingly similar.

"I have written about Coppola’s film in more detail for Video Watchdog but De Palma’s is perhaps the more distinguished of the pair, if only because that cynicism which so frequently permeates his work ends up giving Passion greater thematic coherence – something which, for better and worse, is lacking from Twixt, Coppola’s optimism preventing him taking De Palma’s final leap into despair."

Stevens somewhat echoes Sara Freeman's essay on Passion, in which she suggests that the advertising businesswomen involved in the film's drama are each "living inside her very own Facebook profile or twitter account." But Stevens seems to delve even further into this idea-- here is another excerpt:


De Palma has of course been dealing with the impact of imagery on both those who create it and those who consume it throughout his career. Hi, Mom! (1969) in particular now seems remarkably prescient in its portrait of a society wherein we record our everyday activities and end up staging them for the camera’s benefit. Passion updates this concern to the era of Skype, email and mobile phones, all of which De Palma sees as providing new opportunities for deception (including self-deception) and misrepresentation.

The plot involves a rivalry between two women working for a German advertising agency, the seemingly introverted Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and her extrovert boss Christine (Rachel McAdams). Although the film is told mostly from Isabelle’s viewpoint, we learn almost nothing about her. Her sexuality, friendships, familial relationships, past life and nationality are all mysterious; as Christine tells her, “I don’t even know where you’re from or what you want.” Isabelle is the product of a social-media culture, creating herself through various manipulations and technological transactions, existing only to the extent that desires can be projected onto her by the people she encounters, ultimately disappearing into a state of uncertainty wherein everything is (or might as well be) a dream.

Stylistically, the film is divided into two parts. The first half is lit and framed like an episode of a television series about backstabbing among the jetset (Dallas, perhaps) while the second half is much lusher visually, with the kind of excessive mise en scène typical of this director. It is here that Isabelle abandons her former passivity and takes decisive action, successfully carrying out a complex scheme to destroy Christine. Essentially, she retreats into an ‘online’ world in which her fantasies can be realised without fear of exposure, and De Palma implies that this entire section is Isabelle’s dream.

But the earlier scenes take place in a world which is just as ‘unreal’, just as heavily marked by wish-fulfilment fantasies and stylish surfaces: Christine claims to have both a twin sister and a childhood trauma but may have invented both, and at times is so harshly lit that her face appears to be as white as the mask of herself she makes her lovers wear. This mask is eventually donned by Isabelle (who thus ‘becomes’ Christine) during a murder scene that might be a fantasy (but also might not). In a world where so many of our relationships are conducted via the internet, it makes little difference whether we are on or offline, awake or dreaming, guilty or innocent. Identity, sexuality and morality have all become provisional, subject to constant revision. As with Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch presidential campaign, it is always possible to hit the reset button and start again.

Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010) shares many of these concerns and so far has not received any UK exposure. A few months ago, I wrote about a group of 80s films that critiqued American cinema’s dominant trends. These recent works by De Palma, Coppola and Hellman suggest the emergence of a new oppositional movement, one which challenges those hermetic CGI entertainments wherein the erasure of physical reality serves as a guarantee that we can leave our troubles at the door, that nothing will be permitted to disturb our involvement in corporate-controlled fantasies.


(Thanks to Rado!)

Posted by Geoff at 1:57 AM CST
Updated: Thursday, February 27, 2014 1:58 AM CST
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