Sitting with his hands crossed, leaning back as the circle of film writers around him leans in, Brian De Palma’s deadpan manner would be worthy of his acknowledged main influence, Alfred Hitchcock. A familiar presence at the Toronto Film Festival’s screening rooms, the director came to town last year to present his latest film, Passion. Strikingly reworking Alain Corneau’s swan song, Love Crime, this sleek thriller finds the veteran provocateur in top form, playfully using a slippery narrative of corporate female rivalry (embodied by the pale-fire team of Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams) for a panoply of doubles, untrustworthy gazes, and other beguiling De Palma staples. Though this roundtable interview took place on the director’s 72nd birthday, De Palma was as usual more interested in self-inquiry than in self-congratulations, touching on subjects ranging from the inherently cinematic quality of women to his fascination with the eyes of technology.
What attracted you to the French original?
I liked the way of the plot. I liked the power struggles between the main characters. I didn’t like the way Corneau revealed the murder, but that’s okay, because if we’re planning on remaking a film, then let’s remake one that has room for improvement. Most of all, I liked the women. There’s something very photogenic, very cinematic about the way women move in movies and interact with each other. And I think my audience for this film is women, primarily. Women like to look at women as much as men do, and I’m a director who likes dressing the characters up and lighting them beautifully.
Did that influence your selection of José Luis Alcane as your cinematographer?
Of course. He’s fabulous at photographing beauty. There’s a pleasure to it.
There’s great visual contrast between the two leading ladies.
Noomi can be really scary because she’s so opaque, and you believe that she could be a murderer. And Rachel had sexy fun with her character. I’ve known actresses who didn’t particularly care for playing manipulative women, but I remembered how good Rachel was in Mean Girls and knew she’d go for it. Plus they had worked together in that Sherlock Holmes movie, so they already had developed a comfort zone and were unafraid to go anywhere with each other. Very dynamic to watch.
A brunette and a blonde. And, later, a redhead.
Karoline Herfurth, yes. This is a Franco-German production, and Karoline is a big star in Germany. I’d seen her in Perfume by Tom Tykwer—a small role, but I loved how she looked with that marvelous flaming mane of red hair. Her character really adds to that nest of vipers that is the office, because she looks like the only one who has a heart.
How did you come up with the idea of the characters in the advertisement company putting together that ad with the hidden camera?
That’s based on an actual ad that went viral. I went on the Internet and saw a commercial that had been designed by a couple of Australian girls, where they stuck a phone in one of their back pockets and record the reactions of these different people around town looking at their behind. It was an elaborate gimmick ad that looked like a couple of friends having fun, so I used that as the basis for Isabelle and Dani’s ad. I originally had thought of an incredibly more complicated commercial, all these dreams on top of one another. It got a bit too much like Inception. I showed it to a few director friends of mine, and they all said, “What are you, crazy? Simplify!” [laughs]
I’ve always been interested in your use of technology and vision. Here you have all these cameras spying on the characters, all these miniature eyes.
I’m very aware of new technology. Ever since I was a kid, it’s fascinated me. Think of how everybody these days is carrying a video camera with them at all times. The trouble with that is that people are recording themselves and playing back the footage instead of living life. You see a man having dinner at a restaurant with a gorgeous girl, and he’s doing this [mimics looking down, typing on a cellphone]. “What’s going on? Don’t you want to see what’s right in front of you?” The very act of seeing has become very strange with all this now easily available technique, and I try to reflect that on the screen.
What was your intention with the split-screen sequence?
My intention? Now, what could that be? One interpretation is quite simple: Noomi is at the ballet. We’re showing her watching the ballet at the same time somebody is stalking Rachel at her house. On the half of the screen where you see the ballet, we cut to a close-up of Noomi’s eyes. [Mock-excited] Aha! Well, she must be at the ballet! She couldn’t possibly be at the house, now could she? Meanwhile you see all these things going on back at the house, and when the POV shots start we don’t see any more close-ups of Noomi’s eyes. Viewers have become conditioned to expect A to lead to B, and accept it without question. The juxtaposition of the images on the screen seals a destination on viewers’ minds, but do we go there or do we undermine it? Again, the important thing is to look actively at what’s unfolding before us.