For his first film since 2007’s Redacted, Brian De Palma returns to his Hitchcockian obsession, this time by way of Alain Corneau. A loose remake of Corneau’s final film, Love Crime (Crime d’amour, 2010), Passion feels very much like a De Palma flick from the ‘80s, with somewhat of a 21st-century bend. It is by no means vintage De Palma, but it comes much closer than it has any right to.
Love Crime provides De Palma with his basic story, a professional and personal rivalry between two female executives that gets out of hand real fast and culminates (or does it?) in murder. De Palma, though, plays with the dynamics of the relationship quite a bit. In the Corneau film, the two executives, Christine and Isabelle, were portrayed respectively by Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, the age difference a key element of their relationship. De Palma makes Christine and Isabelle much closer in age (Rachel MacAdams is not even a year older than Noomi Rapace), and adds a third character, Isabelle’s secretary Dani. Christine the blonde, Isabelle the brunette, Dani the redhead. Don’t read too much into it, though; De Palma, like Hitchcock, loves doubles, and the women keep changing roles, each in turn being the manipulator and the manipulated, the tormentor and the victim. The point is driven home when it is revealed that Christine likes to make her sexual partners wear a mask modeled after her own face, a mask that Isabelle later acquires.
The plot starts when Isabelle comes up with a genius idea for an ad campaign and Christine steals all the credit from her, triggering a series of backstabs, betrayals, and humiliation (“There’s no betrayal here, it’s just business,” Christine tells Isabelle with the fakest smile at some point, and Isabelle repeats the line a little later, once she’s turned the tables on her boss). But plot isn’t really what matters here. If Corneau’s movie was a taut thriller, Passion is more a black comedy, with a healthy sprinkling of soap opera. It’s all heightened emotion, often to a ridiculous degree; when Christine tells Isabelle a sad story about her dead twin sister in the middle of a meeting room, it’s hard to take the scene very seriously. A subplot taken from Love Crime that has Dirk, Christine’s boyfriend and Isabelle’s lover, embezzling money from the company barely seems to interest De Palma; what matters to him is the relationship between Christine, Isabelle, and Dani, with its many soap-like twists, backstabs, and reveals.
There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the film, though, reminding us of just how high the stakes are for those characters, of how far they’re willing to go to gain the upper hand. De Palma’s obsession with surveillance turns to nightmare here. The characters are constantly being filmed or photographed, the films and pictures constantly used for nefarious purposes. Even Isabelle’s marketing campaign revolves around the idea that the phone she’s trying to sell comes equipped with a built-in hi-tech camera. When Isabelle finds herself alone in a London hotel room with Dirk, she lets him record their having sex, even though she must know full well that it will come back to haunt her. We’ve become complicit in our own surveillance and exposure, De Palma seems to say. Hardly a revolutionary notion in the age of Instagram and sex tapes, but to his credit, that’s an idea he’s been grappling with for a long time (remember Snake Eyes?).
Passion’s soap opera aesthetics carry the film for a while, but they can’t hide some of its major flaws, chief among which the awkwardness of the writing. The dialogue is often clumsy and exposition-laden, and it is hard to tell whether that’s intentional or not. The characters are little more than cyphers, able to switch roles at a moment’s notice because they don’t have much of a personality to begin with. Even the constant backstabbing, as fun as it is for a while, eventually threatens to become tiresome.
That is, until the last act rolls around and Passion turns from black comedy to demented thriller. De Palma breaks out the Dutch angles and the dark filters as Isabelle slips further and further into madness, and piles twist upon twist upon twist. What does it matter if each new twist is more stupid than the last? What matters is the dizziness their accumulation creates, until we’re not sure what’s actually going on, or if anyone actually knows. De Palma throws caution and logic to the wind, and the insane roller coaster that is the film’s last half hour is more than enough to rescue Passion from itself.
Gaël Schmidt-Cléach is a French critic and writer. He currently resides in Paris, but can also be found on Twitter (@gschmidtcleach).
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma (based on an original screenplay by Natalie Carter & Alain Corneau)
Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd
Director of Photography: José Luis Alcaine
Editor: François Gédigier
Art Director: Astrid Poeschke
Costume Design: Karen Muller Serreau
Original Music: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Rachel MacAdams (Christine), Noomi Rapace (Isabelle), Paul Anderson (Dirk), Karoline Herfurth (Dani), Rainer Bock (Inspector Bach)
Runtime 100 minutes