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Thursday, May 4, 2023
"Perversions and Diversions"

Posted by Geoff at 11:47 PM CDT
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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

I happened upon this intriguing essay from December of 2017, about Brian De Palma's Passion, at Film Fest Gent. Here's an English translation from Dutch, with help from Google Translate:
The fact that Brian De Palma in 'Passion' not only beckons Hitchcock but also Fritz Lang, is of course primarily due to the basic intrigue he borrowed from 'Crime d'amour' (2010), the ultimate film by the French director Alain Corneau. Corneau's admiration for Lang was already apparent in one of his first films, 'Police Python 357' (1976): a gloomy police officer driven by a Langian destiny mechanism. In it, the cop on duty (Yves Montand) conducts an investigation that must inevitably lead to his own indictment of a murder that he did not commit.

In both 'Crime d'amour' and 'Passion' there is a plot twist that also formed the premise for Lang's last American thriller, 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' (1956). In it, the protagonist himself fabricates the burden of proof against himself in the hope of exonerating himself with a coup de théâtre. De Palma is of course more Hitchcockian than Langian and his free remake of a French film is therefore based on Hitchcock's favorite motif of deduplication, which in 'Vertigo' (1958) was pushed to the extreme - abstract and quasi-geometrical.

'Passion' largely takes place in a Berlin advertising agency where three young she-wolves are at each other's throats, initially in a quasi-civilized way, but becoming increasingly predatory and aggressive. Women who differ greatly in ranking in the company but are completely interchangeable when it comes to gluttony, desire and greed. Initially everything revolves around the power games between blonde bitch Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her seemingly innocent, dark-haired protégée Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) to whom she gives an expensive scarf as a gift but also steals her ideas at the same time, which Isabelle hits back at. Isabelle, in turn, also has an assistant (Karoline Herfuth) who does not go unnoticed and eventually gets a bigger role in the plot twists than her initial screen time suggests.

Power, eros, humiliation and sadomasochistic strategies in the executive suite have been widely covered in Hollywood, from forties melodramas with Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck to the controversial Demi Moore vehicle 'Disclosure' (1994). The environment in which the clever ladies from 'Passion' maneuver was certainly not chosen by chance: the most critical American director of his generation sees the advertising agency as the quintessence of neo-capitalist lust for power where the desire to dominate the other and thus also the taking over the identity and body of the other, takes extreme forms until one woman Persona-like transitions into the other.

Here, De Palma also makes maximum use of the shiny, reflective and transparent architecture and dynamism of the new Berlin, where an artificial high-tech visual delusion has been created on the ruins of a guilty and criminal past of double dictatorships (the filming locations are mainly situated in the former East -Berlin and the former no man's land between east and west: Frank Gehry's DZ bank, Helmut Jahn's Sony Center and the eerie-looking new building in the residential embassy district).

Above all, De Palma amuses himself with his mise en abîme of a world of visual constructions. For decades, De Palma has portrayed our world as an arena of screens in his films. In this new Berlin, the multiplication of screens as Lang prophetically announced them in the 'Dr. Mabuse' films that appear in the three periods of his German career (the silent film 'Dr. Mabuse der Spieler uit' 1921-1922; the sound film 'Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse' from 1932; the post-Hollywood film 'Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse' from 1960), became reality. Everywhere there are cameras set up, there are indiscreet glances, people are spied on, recorded, eavesdropped and monitored.

The erotic thriller plot is based on a number of confrontations and exchanges on Skype, conference calls, smartphones, videos thrown on YouTube, evidence captured by surveillance cameras. The result is a destabilizing game of voyeurism and exhibitionism, often intertwined and taken over in some key scenes by the good old split screen technique, in which the screen itself is cut in half so that the choreography of the murder runs parallel (or asynchronously) with a real choreography, L'Après-Midi d'un faune.

In his previous film 'Redacted' (2007), De Palma used an even more disorienting mix of various image types to reveal different layers of subjectivity and objectivity, truth and falsehood, fact and fabrication. Here he uses this strategy for a pure style exercise. For the DePalma admirer, 'Passion' can also be enjoyed as one long walk through the fetishes, obsessions and hobbies of the director who here updates his playful erotic thrillers from the eighties and nineties ('Dressed to Kill', 'Body Double', 'Raising Cain'), complete with the comeback of his regular composer Pino Donaggio who once again delivers a teasing lyrical score.

A film also in which De Palma gives free rein to his passion to bring female beauty to the lens in the most fetishistic way. Only this happens here compared to De Palma's related thrillers in such a purified form that the film also has something skeletal, despite the sensually seductive visuals and camera movements. Exactly: like the late films of Fritz Lang.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A video posted at Sony Pro features an edited interview with José Luis Alcaine at Camerimage 2021, in which the cinematographer recalls asking Brian De Palma a question as they began working on Passion together:
Well, I was born in Tangier, which is a Mediterranean city in Africa. I was a photographer and I studied all the time the light in Tangier. In Tangier, that is something which appealed to me a lot. And with time, something that appears in all my movies. In the year, there is plenty of sun. Sunny, sunny days. So the sun is always inside of the house through the windows. I studied that, and I remember very well the change of the light in the apartment that we lived in. Because in my movies, the sun is always getting inside of the house, through the windows or through anything which can convey some sunlight.

There was a question that happens to me… the American director Brian De Palma, calls me for making a movie – I’ve done three with him. On the first movie, I say to him, “But why do you think that I am good for your movie? Because I am not so well known in America.” And he said, “Well, I have seen a lot of your movies, and I noticed that you are always doing – always – very well light. And that is very important for my movies. So that’s why you are here with me.” And I say, “Well, that’s a good reason.”

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Sunday, January 23, 2022

As Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers moves through theaters, El Confidencial today posted an interview with "legend of Spanish cinema" José Luis Alcaine. The interview was conducted by Ana Ramírez. Here's a portion, with Spanish-to-English translation assistance via Google Translate:
Most of the time, I don't need to talk too much with the directors I work with. Almost everyone thinks that the director of a film and the cinematographer are communicating during the entire shoot, but in my case it is not true. I need to see the films they have made before, ask them a few weeks before what they are looking for in photography and that's it. Some give me references: 'Go see this film or 'I'm looking for a light like this'... For example, in 'The Bird of Happiness', I asked Pilar Miró what she wanted before shooting. She didn't say anything to me, she just looked in a folder and took out a print of 'The Scream', by Eduard Munch. 'This is what I want'. And from there, one starts to guess.

Q. Along these lines, the more accomplished your work is, the less it is perceived by the general public?

A. Sometimes it happens. But what I don't want is for the photography to be noticed. When someone tells me: 'I've seen your film, what great photography', I already know that they haven't seen it or they didn't like what was being told, that's why they paid a lot of attention to the photography. I told Pedro Almodóvar that 'Parallel Mothers' has two readings. One, to see it normally. Another, to see all the details that Pedro has put in and that I have illuminated, because they enrich the film. Perhaps, at the beginning you follow the story and you are not so aware that they exist. In a way, you have to watch it twice.

Q. A book, a painting, a piece of furniture… How do you make those hidden messages visible in Almodóvar's plans?

R. In 'Parallel Mothers', I have basically used very closed diaphragms. [The diaphragm is the part of the lens that regulates the amount of light that enters the camera]. Not only does this mean that less light enters, but the more the diaphragm is closed, the more objects begin to appear in focus and sharp in the shot.

I think that when playing with that, with the depth of field, there can be two types of narration in cinema. There is one that has now become fashionable throughout the world: by opening the diaphragm a lot, almost the entire frame is out of focus, except for a single object or a character that is closer to the camera. That's an advantage for the production of the film, because you don't have to worry too much about what's around you.

The other approach consists of establishing several fields of action that are seen on the screen. The viewer can see them all, first, second, third... All of this enriches the story because there can be different layers of narration. For example, if a character says something in the foreground and another reacts elsewhere in the shot. This allows the viewer to feel inside the place, accompanying the actors. If only one part is in focus, you sit in the chair and see a completely flat screen. For me, it's terrible because the viewer doesn't participate. They tell him a story that is perhaps very interesting, but his vision is very much driven by what the director wants to tell him. He cuts the wings of the story and the relationship. In the cinema that I like, I need more depth of field and a richer image.

P. Where do you think that trend comes from?

R. That started in the 80s and 90s. Many of the important directors of that time came from the world of advertising. The 'spots' that were most popular then lasted about 30 seconds and concentrated many different shots in a short time. And the difficulty is added that they were made for the televisions of the time, which were smaller. That's how they came up with the idea of concentrating the viewer's attention on a single point, on the product, and that's it. For a small screen, that's fine. But for a screen like this [points to the theater canvas], the viewer is out of the game because he only pays attention to a very small portion.

I think that in these circumstances, even if the stories are good, they don't leave a mark because they don't let you participate. They are flat and unrelieved exposures. Within a quarter of an hour, you've forgotten. For the record, all this is a theory of mine… It is difficult to verify. I think that the cinema of the 40s to the 70s left a mark on you, because the relief of the narration was very careful. The tendency to simplify it has to do with an easy cinema, faster to produce in this sense and cheaper, because everything that is outside the field does not matter. It is an orphan cinema. We are at a crossroads. On the one hand there is covid, which drives viewers away from theaters. On the other hand, there is the orphanage of films that leave a mark on you. One of these that makes you want to debate when you go out.

P. Is this audiovisual bill that simplifies the viewer's gaze, or does it happen the other way around?

R. A significant thing happens. This fashion for shallow shots means that the manufacture of new camera lenses concentrates on producing very beautiful blurs. I know that the big companies look for them, because I know some manufacturers. I have asked them about the new lines and they answer the same thing: they are looking for the out-of-focus part of the image to be very beautiful because that is what people ask for. It is the whiting that wags its tail. It seems like a mistake to me, but this covers us all.

It's the same with mobile phones. That of the 'bokeh effect' or the 'portrait mode' is increasingly taken care of, because people like to see themselves. That's why the rest is blurred, so that the portrait focuses on you, logically. I think this can go beyond aesthetics... There is an invasion of images of ourselves, of ourselves and of our friends. Never before have we been so aware of the passage of time on our image. Before, people were not aware of their own aging, of the passing of the years on themselves. Now we take pictures of everything, we see each other when we are 18, when we are 30 and when we are 50. There was a great guy, Rembrandt, who took self-portraits from when he was very young until he was very old. He painted the passage of time, as we do when we see ourselves grow old in the images.

I think this has something to do with the growing cult of image, beauty and, above all, youth. Wouldn't it be better if instead of staying young with surgeries, we stayed young by learning, going back to college? (Laughs).

P. You usually say that the first time Brian De Palma called you to order the photography of a film, it was because he admired your way of portraying the faces of actresses. That is something that is also seen in his filmography with Almodóvar.

R. This is where theater is opposed to cinema, although they are branches of the same tree: in the actors' gaze. The theater actor works with the body and with the voice. But the film has to work a lot with the look. The eyes are very important to express... If the story is impregnated with the gaze, it is taken to another level. I think it's something that can be seen in the eyes of Antonio Banderas in 'Pain and Glory'.

I say that cinema and theater are the branches of the same tree, that of the represented story. I think there is something that we forget sometimes. For me, cinema is form, to a large extent. The interpretation and the story are very important, but so is how they tell it to us. What shots are chosen, what camera movements, how is the light, the montage... Normally, that is not analyzed. I note that almost all film criticism comes from literature. The first thing a critic does, normally, is to tell you about the story, to tell you about the cast. But the visual form is not paid attention to. This is normal if one takes into account that there is no teaching about image and representation.

Q. In an increasingly visual world, do we need a kind of 'literacy' of images?

R. Lately I am advocating the creation of an image subject. What is cinema, painting, sculpture... What is everything that has been used as representation in the history of mankind. That, from an early age, students begin to discover what is used to tell stories visually. Right now, there is a large part of the youth that does not read, but almost all of them consume many audiovisual products. Even they themselves, through their networks, create small stories in images. They are taught to read and write, things that fewer and fewer of them do outside of school. A subject dealing with the image through the ages, in all its variants, would be good. Of cinema and television, of course, but of many other things. A painting is also a story, painters tell stories through the image. Students need to know how to analyze this and take advantage of it. Above all, because in our civilization images are constantly used as a means of expression. It's very important.

And this has more implications: a lot of news and many images are falsified. If we do not leave aside the tools to analyze photographs, interpret them and create them, it is possible to be taught to detect these manipulations. We are invaded by the image and it is not a bad thing. Yes, it is a very different culture from the one I knew, much more influenced by literature, but our kids should learn to use the visual and express themselves with it. As we were taught with literature.

P. What can be learned from those codes in the cinema?

R. Many times, visual codes depend on gender. It's true that I haven't worked much on that type of film. Action, superhero, horror... I remember one I did with Chicho Ibáñez Serrador, 'Who can kill a child?' It was a horror film, set on a beach and with some kids as murderers. He gave me the film and I proposed to take a photograph far from the typical horror film. Paradoxically, that the terrifying was in the situation and not in the image, because then it becomes a movie. If you take a photograph of summer and the Mediterranean, people are a little surprised and scared. Because he thinks it can happen to them. Otherwise, the horror genre is full of clichés. I always laugh when the topic of the girl who goes into the alley alone comes up. There's already bullshit there... A girl would never go in there alone! Photography is full of sparkles, backlights, long shadows... In Ibáñez Serrador's film, I tried to escape from the genre in terms of photography. From time to time, he would say to me: 'Hey, why don't we make a shadow on the wall as threatening?' And I told him better not, he's not interested... Besides, with a natural thing, the public is more surprised. If the door creaks and a shadow appears, we already know what will happen.

Somehow, 'The Skin I Live In' also had that point of suspense and terror. But neither Pedro nor I wanted a genre film. We wanted to tell some facts and not know very well what was going to happen. For my taste, what happens in the genre is that what is going to happen is telegraphed, you see it coming if you have a certain visual culture. But if you don't give any indication, people are left baffled. I try to escape codes in lighting.

P. In addition to naturalism, you emphasize the elaboration of light, the creation of volume on the screen. Where does this concern come from?

A. I have a lazy eye. It works worse than the other and, since the relief is given by both eyes, my brain is inclined to pay more attention to my good eye. Because of this, I have difficulty perceiving the volume. I have a hard time seeing things in relief, so I create it with light. The lighting helps me to highlight the volume of things and, incidentally, to correct this defect that I have.

In almost all my works, I start from the idea that I am always learning. I am always looking at everything, especially the innovations that are coming out. Once, I had the idea of using fluorescent lights when it was not usual in the cinema. I needed a flat, low light to illuminate a table with multiple characters. I was thinking a lot about making a wooden one to put several spotlights with a tracing paper on top... Well, a mess. And I thought: 'But this could be a home fluorescent'. So I went with my production manager to a hardware store to buy some tubes and we started using them. In fact, when he had filming outside, he traveled with a trunk full of fluorescent lights, because they weren't used and there weren't any anywhere. Now it's the most normal thing in the world.

P. Sometimes, changes are not well received... You also often say that, when you were studying at the Official School of Cinematography, they told you that cinema was not made for you.

A. Yes. It was for a very simple reason. When I started, what was done was a studio light, with very defined shadows. That seemed a bit false to me and I was always looking for ideas to find another way to light. I did tests of all kinds. In film school, I was considered a dangerous madman. I tried to see if by bouncing the light off a wall or by putting some white paper on some black flags... That's what led Juan Julio Baena, who ran the school, to tell me that the cinema was not made for me. But I didn't pay any attention to him. He was very convinced of what he was doing. When someone is sure of what they're looking for, even if they can't find it, it's hard to keep them from it.

Posted by Geoff at 7:13 PM CST
Updated: Thursday, February 3, 2022 10:06 PM CST
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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

I came across this Japanese poster for Brian De Palma's Passion this week. I like the design - don't think I've ever seen this one before.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Monday, December 20, 2021

As Valdimar Jóhannsson's Lamb gets set for release in France next week, Allocine's Thomas Desroches asks Noomi Rapace to talk about "five experiences that changed her career, from the role that revealed her in 'Millennium' to her return to Icelandic cinema." One of those five experiences is Passion:
"I was very intrigued by the relationship between my character and that of Rachel McAdams. They are very complex and desperate women, with a whole set of admiration, seduction and hatred. I felt like I was in a minefield, you never know when it's going to explode. It was a very difficult shoot, psychologically. I did a lot of research on psychopaths and met a professor who specializes in the subject. I was playing a woman with a sociopathic disorder, which means she has no empathy. It was a different way of working.

With Brian De Palma… [she pauses, Editor's note] there were a lot of clashes! He's from another era and I have a lot of character myself. I think he's used to filming with women who do whatever he asks. We held on long enough, and then we finally found a working rhythm. He was an old movie maestro who met a young rebel, obviously… But it was a very interesting and stimulating shoot."

Noomi Rapace tells of clashing with De Palma on Passion
De Palma: "She refused to play certain scenes the way I asked her."

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
Updated: Tuesday, December 21, 2021 8:29 AM CST
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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CDT
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Thursday, June 25, 2020

I found myself watching Passion the other night, thinking I was just going to watch the opening scenes. As happens often when I start watching a Brian De Palma film, pure enjoyment takes over, and I kept watching. The split screen sequence in Passion was just as mesmerizing and surreal as I'd remembered.

Then, today, I came across a quote from an interview with De Palma in the New York Times, published upon the release of Passion. For the article, Nicolas Rapold had wanted to sit with De Palma while the two viewed clips from older films that inspired parts of Passion, but De Palma playfully suggested they watch clips from his own films instead, saying, "I could only refer to my own films. Nobody does this but me."

As they watch the split screen sequence from De Palma's Sisters, De Palma tells Rapold, "The thing about split screen is: It’s a kind of meditative form. You can go very slowly with it, because there’s a lot to look at. People are making juxtapositions in their mind. And you can have all this exposition mumbo jumbo on one side."

The part of the quote that stuck with me was that split screen is "kind of a meditative form." It strikes me that De Palma's use of split screen has gotten more and more meditative in his later films: from the juxtapositions of fictions and truth in the complex split screen machinations of Snake Eyes, to the where-are-we-now and who's-watching-who blender of surveillance, thievery, and art in the split screen sequence from Femme Fatale. And then there is the split screen in Passion, which is so oddly beautiful and eerie at the same time. Rapold and De Palma watch that sequence for the article, as well:

Some filmmakers claim not to watch their own films, or say they only see the mistakes. Mr. De Palma displayed no such qualms as he pored over the split-screen sequence in “Passion.”

On the right-hand side, Ms. McAdams as Christine goes about her business after a party at home, showering undisturbed.

“I told her, ‘Just get yourself ready,’ and she could make that as long or as short as she wanted,” Mr. De Palma said. “I would just cut it.”

On the left, as the ballet unfolds, the image cuts from a tight close-up on Ms. Rapace’s eyes to the duet in progress. The piece is Jerome Robbins’s version of “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a couple dance as if facing the mirrored wall of a studio. In Mr. De Palma’s hands, that means they’re looking dead into the camera.

Meanwhile, somebody’s now in Christine’s house.

“You’re lulling the audience,” Mr. De Palma said of the combination of sequences. “I had no idea how it would work. I just had an instinct about it. This is your very typical point-of-view murderer shot, but here juxtaposed against this beautiful ballet.”

The dance grows more intimate. Christine’s stalker comes closer. Art on the left, death on the right.

“And then whack!” he exclaimed.

It was a resounding end to the scene, but just another step in Mr. De Palma’s nightmarish world of suspense.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Friday, June 26, 2020 12:49 AM CDT
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Monday, March 2, 2020

Posted by Geoff at 11:57 PM CST
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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Ryan Swen, a freelance film critic who writes for The Film Stage and Seattle Screen Scene, among others, includes Brian De Palma's Passion at number 26 on his list, A Top 100 of the 2010s. "Among other things," Swen tweeted yesterday, along with the screen grab above, "kind of a perfect ratio of political and playful De Palma." Swen's number one film of the 2010s is Mariano Llinás' La Flor from last year, a formally-adventurous 14-hour film made up of six episodes.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
Updated: Monday, February 3, 2020 12:06 AM CST
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