Every so often, truly great auteurs hit a point in their respective careers, that doesn’t breed the type of bombastic and truly brilliant pieces of work that the heights of their powers have been known to do. Names like Francis Ford Coppola instantly pop into mind, and yet, that director, like so many, has begun working his respective way back to the top of the filmmaker heap (a brilliant piece of work like Tetro certainly makes up for the failure that is Twixt). The same has not been able to be said for one Brian De Palma, however.
Over the last decade plus (arguably two), De Palma has hit the skids, pumping out slop like The Black Dahlia and his last film, Redacted, one of his worst one-two punches to date. Six years have passed since that picture, and while he may be back with what is ostensibly a remake of a mediocre foreign thriller, he’s back with a shockingly fresh feeling, deliciously De Palma erotic drama that may veer towards the utterly ridiculous but also veers towards the higher end of his collective canon.
Entitled Passion, De Palma’s new film finds its inspiration in the 2010 French thriller from late director Alain Corneau named Love Crime, and follows the story of an advertising executive named Christine who just wants to be loved. Over the span of the film’s 94-minute runtime we become privy to a story that fines Christine trying to do anything and everything to hold power over the beautiful Isabelle, a member of her advertising team. A film chock full of melodramatic twists and turns, this film may be as close to the cinematic manifestation of everything De Palma believes aesthetically, and in that this becomes one of De Palma’s liveliest and most engaging works in at least 20 years.
And in that De Palma truly becomes this film’s guiding light and inarguably the most interesting and important factor. Lavishly shot by Jose Luis Alcaine, this piece of work truly seems to be De Palma working at not so much the height of his aesthetic powers, but getting down to the pure seemingly animalistic core of his appreciation for things like German expressionism and, especially, film noir. There are stunning sequences here of beautifully lit sets that seem ripped right out of the cake noir that is Fritz Lang’s Ministry Of Fear, that film’s energy and aesthetic vitality seemingly injected straight into De Palma’s DNA. We also get various handheld sequences and seemingly first person shots that De Palma has been working with since his masterpiece, Blow Out, and even finding De Palma giving love to his key calling card, the brazen aesthetic shocker that is then split diopter shot. Passion is, at its very best, a stunningly shot meditation on the style of film noir, giving a deliciously De Palma sense of eroticism to things that would have become perfect fodder for a filmmaker like the aforementioned Lang.
De Palma also co-wrote the screenplay with Natalie Carter, and while it is ostensibly a silly tone, mood and aesthetic piece, there is some interesting work on the page here. The film doesn’t seem to really have much interest in getting to the real core of its characters, instead opting for something that is far more superficial (in keeping with the film’s focus on visuals), but no less enthralling. Driven by a narrative that, come the final act, becomes a bewilderingly kinetic series of twists and turns, Passion is a solid erotic thriller that may be low on character development, but leaves the viewer with such a sense of disorientation that you can’t help but love the gusto and raw energy that the film truly moves along with.
And here, the weak links here are truly the performances. The picture stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, both of whom are fine here, but don’t give anything remotely resembling a performance to really dig into. McAdams has a certain energy about her in some sequences that she becomes a joy to watch, while the slow boil under the skin and behind the eyes of Rapace is thrilling to see come the final act, but for the majority of this film the two portray ostensibly caricatures of two people stuck in a power struggle both at work and at home. There are a couple of interesting character traits given to both characters (McAdams’ Christine has interesting fetishes that are both played for a joke and beyond telling about her character while Isabelle is driven to insomnia by the proceedings) but this is not a character study as much as it is a piece of cinema finding its auteur flexing his aesthetic muscle.
While this film has become yet another maligned piece from auteur Brian De Palma, this film steers clear of issues found by fellow auteur-directed-Rachel-McAdams-starring picture, Malick’s To The Wonder, and instead of becoming beautiful self-parody, it becomes a vital piece of visual art. De Palma’s film may set its sights carnally instead of Malick’s heavenly intent, but he crafts a film that is as singular and truly De Palma as we’ve see from the filmmaker in decades.