Brian De Palma has traditionally worked best when indulging the grand gesture, with the overblown confidence of someone drunk on their own talent, but with the proper self-awareness not to take himself too seriously. But coming off two alternately stale and incensed films (2006’s The Black Dahlia and 2007’s Redacted), it seemed as if the lurid soil that De Palma has most fruitfully tilled over the years wasn’t territory he wished to revisit anytime soon. But as Pino Donaggio’s dramatically sensual score (his first for De Palma since 1992s Raising Cain) greets the opening titles of Passion, De Palma’s first film in five years, it’s clear that this master of the erotic thriller is back on home turf, with all the luscious violence, sensationalistic flourishes, and base pleasures that has come to entail.
Based on the recent French thriller Love Crime by Alain Corneau, Passion utilizes its parent film’s narrative of corporate betrayal as mere framework for which De Palma to dress in all kinds of lustrous detail, with sleek, sharp angles dissecting each composition, turning the sterilized confines of an advertising agency into battlefield of concrete forms and conflicting emotions. Starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in an apprentice/mentor tug of war, Passion pits these characters as inversions of one another: Rapace’s Isabelle is innocent and naïve, but with enough natural talent to threaten McAdams’s Christine, a beautiful, manipulative executive who’s used every asset at her disposal to advance in the business world. As in many of De Palma’s great wars of will, there’s just enough of Christine reflected in Isabelle to trigger the aesthetic and narrative techniques—visual doublings, doppelgangers, voyeurism, shifting identities—needed to ignite the stylistic formulations on which the film hinges.
Close readings of De Palma’s work in this mode often prompt accusations of shallowness and questions regarding the level of seriousness at play beyond the surface. And if Passion does indeed lack substance, I’d argue that it features at least the necessary amount of subtext to carry it’s outlandish plot past parody (which it does directly engage with on occasion) and into the realm of social and economic commentary. The first half of the film is particularly critical of the work environment that brings these women into physical and psychological contact. Christine’s rise to executive prominence has apparently coincided with the loss of her ability to engage emotionally despite selling tales of a damaged past in an effort to elicit sympathy from Isabelle, who herself can’t advance professionally without ceding to her superiors and engaging in morally compromising situations. Technology is likewise prodded as computers, cellphones, and various recording devices facilitate greed, blackmail, and corruption.
This is obviously material ripe for dramatic staging, and De Palma continues to deploy his trademark aesthetic touches with a master’s hand. After undercutting Isabelle with a particularly evil display of public embarrassment, the movie shifts tones from corporate drama to psychosexual thriller, with canted angles, split-screen dioramas, and dramatically shadowed sequences of violence and eroticism (though it’s surprising how little actual sex is on display here). De Palma utilizes Rapace’s blank features as another surface from which to refract the drama, while McAdams’s glowing visage is exploited to its fullest extent, transforming from plastic grin to a unchecked rage to outpourings of tears, sometimes within the same scene. Their hair, wardrobe, even postures, are in direct contrast to one another, and in typical De Palma fashion, their varying states of mental stability are questioned and eventually collapsed as visions fold into dreams and dreams engage with waking life, to the point where one is nearly inseparable by the time the film closes.
The film occasionally veers perilously close to losing the thread, but at all times it’s apparent who is truly pulling the strings and manipulating these characters, as scenes oftentimes dramatically contradict one another only to play off the tension provoked by such juxtapositions just to pull the rug out from under the viewer. De Palma has long since abandon verisimilitude, but there’s an emotional truth to the narrative that precludes reading these characters strictly as ciphers. The mileage De Palma has gotten out of this formula, which itself is a knowing revision of the modes of the classic thriller construct, is impressive. And while Passion never demands anything above direct engagement with our basic fears and emotions, it’s all the more fun when one allows the surface pleasures to bolster its themes, thus enhancing our understanding of De Palma and his continued pursuit of realizing the potential of the cinematic form.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.