Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie Review: Passion

Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma based on the screenplay by Natalie Carter and Alain Corneau.
Starring: Rachel McAdams (Christine), Noomi Rapace (Isabelle James), Paul Anderson (Derk), Karoline Herfurth (Dani), Rainer Bock (Inspector Bach).

Many of Brian De Palma’s thrillers – even his better ones – don’t make much logical sense. Go back and watch Sisters (1973) or Obsession (1976) or Dressed to Kill (1980) to see some examples of his finest work that gets by almost entirely on style and not on logic. If you think about the plots of these films, they pretty much fall apart. But because De Palma tells them with such style, and such passion, and because they twist and turn so unpredictably, you are caught up in the movie from moment to moment, and don’t really care if it all makes sense in the end. At least that’s true for me. I know a lot of people don’t really like De Palma – who, unlike me, think most of his films are crap, where I just happen to think that Femme Fatale (2002) aside, the last 20 years or so of his career has been disappointing, but the first 20 years were wonderful. His latest film is Passion, and judging by many the reviews coming out of Venice and TIFF (where I saw the film), most critics are writing this film off as yet another miss for De Palma. But while I will readily admit the film has flaws – and lots of them – I also have to admit I enjoyed the movie immensely. True, Passion functions mainly as a guilty pleasure – but considering how much I have disliked most of De Palma’s recent films, that is at the very least a step in the right direction.

The movie begins, a little shakily, as a workplace melodrama. Christine (Rachel McAdams) is an executive at an ad firm, looking to get a promotion to New York. One of her underlings, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) comes up with a great idea for a new ad campaign – and when the upper brass likes it – Christine takes the credit. While this is certainly backstabbing, Christine puts on her phony smile, and explains that since she is the boss, if she wins, everyone wins. Besides, if she gets promoted to New York, Isabelle may get a promotion herself. Oh, and Isabelle cannot feel to self-righteous about herself – after all, on the trip to London where she pitched the idea to the client in the first place, she slept with Christine’s boyfriend (Paul Anderson) – and has been carrying on an affair ever since they have returned.

Where the movie goes from here, I’ll leave you to discover, since watching this plot take one unexpected twist after another, as it moves from a melodrama into a violent thriller and murder mystery is one of the chief pleasures of the movie. It is one of those movies where you’re never sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy – because whenever you’re convinced you’ve figured it out, something comes along to pull the rug out from under you. Even the seemingly innocent people – like Christine’s put upon boyfriend and Isabelle’s sweet looking assistant (Karoline Herfurth) aren’t quite what they seem.

There are certainly problems with Passion. For one thing, the movie gets off to a rocky start. The workplace backstabbing doesn’t feel genuine – really it feels like actors going through the motions. It doesn’t help that De Palma miscast the two lead roles. In the original French film (unseen by me), by Alain Corneau, Christine was played by Kristen Scott Thomas, and Isabelle by Ludivinne Sagnier. For whatever reason, De Palma decided to forego this generation gap, and instead cast two actresses around the same age. This could have worked, by McAdams feels like she’s trying too hard to be the boss from hell – like she’s watched The Devil Wears Prada one too many times. And for her part, Rapace doesn’t seem like the innocent victim she should appear to be in the opening scenes – she’s more than capable of fending for herself against McAdams. Yes, it is a kinky thrill to see these two beautiful women involved in a game of cat and mouse, with sexual overtones, but there is something missing there. Surprisingly it is Karoline Herfurth who gives the movie’s best performance – and it is precisely because she seemingly comes from nowhere that her performance is so damn good.

And yet the miscasting of the movie certainly didn’t kill my enjoyment of it. De Palma and his style is almost always the star of his films anyway, and especially in this film’s later half – when he pulls out all the stops – he is in top form here. De Palma has always been an unabashed borrower from other directors – especially, but not limited to, Hitchcock – and he does so here as well (especially in the weird score that sounds like Bernard Herrman on crack). But the director De Palma most borrows from here is himself. He repeats many of the stylistic tricks he has used before, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem like a boring rehash, but a knowing nod and wink to his fans in the audience.

Passion is certainly not a great film. I wouldn’t really argue with anyone who hates the film, because I know where they are coming from. And yet, for me, this film functioned perfectly as a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t really add anything new to De Palma’s filmography, and it may not be an “objectively good” film (whatever the hell that means), but damn if I did not have a blast watching it.

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