NASHVILLE SCENE FILM CRITIC DIED APRIL 8 FOLLOWING CARDIAC EVENT
Jim Ridley, the Nashville Scene writer and editor, died April 8. "He had collapsed after suffering a cardiac event in the Scene offices on March 28, and never regained consciousness," stated Nashville Scene's Jack Silverman in a post. "He was 50 years old." Ridley was one of the sharpest film critics around, and his review of Brian De Palma's Passion, from 2013, cuts deep into the movie with insightful wit to spare. Here's an excerpt:
Passion is a Brian De Palma movie for a world chilled by narcissism and held rapt by its own reflection. The director has devoted his career to the warping impact of surveillance culture, where everyone is a watcher or passive voyeur — in front of the big screen, the TV, the computer monitor — and conversely, everyone is watched. Long before the laptop, the iPhone and Skype, there was De Palma Nation, a place where everybody was either on camera or behind one. Because of the bulky, prohibitively expensive equipment, the latter group was limited — either to professionals, like John Travolta's sound engineer in Blow Out, or obsessives, like Keith Gordon's gadget-prone amateur sleuth in Dressed to Kill.
But technology has surpassed the spycam society forecast in early De Palma classics like Hi, Mom! and Sisters. Anyone with a cellphone can be both star and director of his own YouTube-documented life, which sounds like nothing so much as the setup for one of De Palma's loopy, sinuous erotic thrillers. In fact, it's a pretty apt description of Passion, a wickedly funny exercise in the audience misdirection and technocratic hoodwinkery that's been this filmmaker's stock in trade for nearly five decades. Its corporate milieu is an orchard of gleaming little trademark Apples, most of them concealing worms.
De Palma borrows the hothouse plot of Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller Love Crime — its co-writer, Natalie Carter, gets a dialogue credit here — but gives it a cold-to-the-touch sheen and a clammy metallic palette that's at ironic odds with the title. (It was shot on 35mm but transferred to digital, which mutes the steamy lushness that marks De Palma's thrillers.) When color bleeds through this sterile environment, it's typically the siren-red lipstick worn by Christine (Rachel McAdams), a coolly kinky executive at a Berlin advertising agency where the glass planes and slashing angles suggest the Apple Store of Dr. Caligari.
So self-obsessed she likes her lovers to wear a doll-mask facsimile of her own features, Christine is grooming an avid protégé, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), who covets her boss's power and modernist digs down to the upholstery on her sofa. De Palma poses them in the frame like mirror images, and Christine can't help but try shaping her underling into a human selfie. "You need some color," she coos to Isabelle, applying her lipstick as well as her lips.
But Isabelle isn't such an eager apprentice once Christine hogs the credit for her viral smartphone ad campaign — a spot that only looks like an updating of the reality-TV "Peeping Toms" gag that opens De Palma's 1973 Sisters, but is in fact a replica of an actual guerrilla YouTube ad. The ad mixes the director's favorite ingredients, sex and spying — and so does the mad soap-opera-on-steroids revenge fantasy that follows, as Isabelle sleeps with Christine's shady colleague-lover (Paul Anderson) and her boss rigs a nasty public payback.
Each step of this battle is registered on screens, even screens within screens, creating a hall of mirrors that fires the gaze back at the gazer: the "ass cam" that secretly films leering gawkers, the sex tape where the parties stare into each other's eyes only when they watch themselves on a monitor. Imagine what this plethora of recording devices means to the man who once called film 24 lies a second. De Palma plays this mediated alienation for queasy-funny effect, as when Isabelle lies in bed with her hands in masturbatory position — only they're poised over her laptop rather than her lap. The two women's fight is personal, all right, but so much of it is waged on a digital playing field that they might as well be videogame avatars. But some things you still have to do the old-fashioned way. That's when a knife comes in handy.
Shot by Almodovar's longtime cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine — the Spanish director's resolutely De Palma-esque melodrama The Skin I Live In was good practice — Passion shows De Palma reveling in the blatant craziness of his contrivances. (This features perhaps the quintessential De Palma line of dialogue: "You have a twin sister?") Rapace's Edvard Munch cheekbones and startled eyes do the heavy lifting of her performance, but McAdams, firmly back in Mean Girls mode, delivers her vicious lines with venomous zest. De Palma introduces more and more variables into the scenario, leading to a split-screen showstopper where high art and low crime compete for the viewer's attention. Guess what wins.