Following The Black Dahlia and Redacted, Passion is a return to form for Brian De Palma, but to compare it to Femme Fatale’s heady and delirious fusion of hieratic artistry with emotional directness is to oversell it. A remake of Alain Corneau’s final film, Love Crime, this melodrama about corporate back-biting and sexual and murderous compulsion more accurately brings to mind a 1975 vintage by De Palma, Obsession, that was also something of a comedy in the guise of a thriller—a slithery, highly stylized bit of auto-critique from a filmmaker who, then, was grappling with the self-deprecating sense of only being able to make movies in the key of Hitchcock.
But De Palma has long stopped apologizing for his proclivities as an artist and as a man, and in Passion he concerns himself with turning his obsessions against us. Set largely within the walls of a Berlin advertising agency, a steely tower that casts shadows as sharp as knives, the film sees a history of upstarts nervously following in their idols’ footsteps—from Margo and Eve to Cristal and Nomi (perhaps even Alfred and Brian?)—in the way one of the company’s top execs, Christine (Rachel McAdams), and a talented new hire, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), constantly jockey for power. In this world where images are constantly being made and manipulated, pitched and marketed desperately by people hungry for power, Isabelle comes up with a clever ad campaign whose provocation, turning the male (and sometimes female) gaze against itself, seals the characters’ fates and addresses our relationship to the allure of those very images.
Passion is a serpentine, gorgeously orchestrated gathering of all of De Palma’s pet themes and conceits, a symphony of giddy terror where people perpetually hide behind masks, both literal and figurative, hallucinations are nested in dreams, and images within images become tools of aggression, all set to a remarkable Pino Donaggio score that’s one part Max Steiner, two parts Bernard Herrmann, and at least three parts Phil Collins. This forceful but spontaneous style, an orgiastic series of advances and withdrawals, is perfectly rhymed to Isabelle’s sense of agency, the sad ease with which she allows herself to be tormented, usurped, then appeased, and the coyness with which she gets her payback. And naturally it all builds to a towering use of split-screen, a juxtaposition of love and hate, creation and destruction, doublings of things already doubled.
The story is almost doggedly stupid. Christine is less woman than cartoon, albeit a fun one, and the way she makes herself disposable is as unimaginatively conveyed as Isabelle’s guilt trips: nightmares within hallucinations that exist mostly as halfhearted repositories for some of the thematic and stylistic whims De Palma isn’t able to sensibly incorporate into her waking life. This may not be as bold a feminist statement as Dressed to Kill, even Body Double, but while there may be less secrets for us to uncover in Passion’s frames, it’s their primping that should be our focus. How the film convinces one of its beauty is akin to Christine persuading Isabelle to embrace a pair of pumps with confidence: It looks good, and that’s all that matters.