Brian De Palma’s approach to filmmaking – as lurid as it is sophisticated, as brainy as it is infantile – is one of the most divisive in contemporary cinema. On the one hand, the director’s fans marvel at his deft stylization of a set of recurring erotic obsessions. Detractors, meanwhile, deride his scenarios, which often register as incoherent or adolescent, and recoil at his embrace of camp sensationalism. De Palma’s remake of Alain Corneau’s corporate thriller Love Crime isn’t likely to convert anyone whose mind is made up; chock full of delirious visual set pieces as well as risible dialogue (choice quote: “Do you think I don’t see what’s going on in that dyke brain of yours?”), it’s a De Palma film through and through. Passion doesn’t attempt to create depth so much as it smashes surfaces together, spinning its rather thin narrative of kinky intrigue into a vertiginous pile-up of fictions, dreams, and above all, images.
From its first shots, Passion establishes a system of visual coding that’s simultaneously flattening and revealing. De Palma begins with a product placement (a close-up of the Apple logo on a Macbook Pro), only to reverse the angle to reveal that his characters, a pair of high-powered ad execs at work on a smartphone campaign, are in the same business as he is: the manipulation of visual icons. But brand names aren’t the only underlined signifiers here: anyone familiar with De Palma’s Hitchcock obsession will recognize Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), blonde and brunette, as examples of that director’s color-coded archetypes. Passion announces upfront that it’s not exactly trafficking in psychological depth, introducing us into a cinematic world populated by seductive signifiers rather than three-dimensional characters. Without this deliberate formal track-laying, it’d be hard to swallow the film’s ludicrous plot, which by most standards seems constantly to be flying off the rails.
Isabelle soon makes a breakthrough on the smartphone campaign, which, combined with a three-way erotic tug of war between the two women and a company contractor (Paul Anderson), creates an intense rivalry between her and Christine. The film’s first half consists of deliberate set-up, or, to quote De Palma’s introduction to the film at last year’s NYFF, “two black widow spiders circling each other.” At the midway point of the film, though, De Palma shifts into overdrive, bathing his images in blue light, slashing his compositions with diagonal lines, and piling twist after twist onto the increasingly frenzied narrative. The movie peaks in this half with a virtuoso split-screen sequence juxtaposing a ballet performance with a murder shot from the attacker’s perspective. This high-wire act justifies the movie’s existence on its own, hitting the dissertation-fodder-with-a-pulse sweet spot of De Palma’s best work.
Passion has a hard time topping that brilliant set piece, though it sure tries, breaking into a last-act flop sweat that produces exhilaration and exhaustion in equal measure. That the movie ultimately collapses on itself is not much of a surprise; what’s more interesting is the paranoid atmosphere that the collapse generates. Above all, Passion is a movie fixated on the plastic qualities of images; as much as De Palma is interested in logos and fetishized bodies, he’s even more captivated by the digital forms that mediate them. In this film about deception, video is the ultimate shape-shifter, fulfilling many functions, often at once: advertising, surveillance, communication, pornography, evidence. The fact that De Palma shot Passion on celluloid seems not just a result of his automatic preference for the format, but a concerted attempt to assimilate all these forms of video under the old-fashioned heading of cinema. The fact that he doesn’t entirely succeed, ending up with a heap of jagged edges rather than a unified aesthetic whole, doesn’t constitute a failure so much as a psychological portrait of our image-saturated society. Passion is not merely an uneven erotic thriller; it’s a nightmare reflection of the confusion we face in a world where images manipulate us as much as we control them.