Bitchy advertising executive Christine Stanford (Rachel McAdams) sets out to exploit and humiliate her up-and-coming subordinate, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), whom she knows is having an affair with her boyfriend, Dirk (Paul Anderson). Her relentless cruelty and manipulation drive Isabelle to a nervous breakdown and an addiction to prescription drugs. When police find Christine slashed to death in her apartment, Isabelle becomes the prime suspect, but there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Few great filmmakers have seen their reputation plummet quite so precipitously as Brian De Palma. Strangely this has less to do with his admittedly uneven output of late - although one could make a case for his audacious, exhilaratingly irrational Femme Fatale (2002) as a cracked masterpiece - than the fact that those qualities that define De Palma’s operatic, fetishistic yet satirical style of cinema are somehow out of step with modern sensibilities. Lately even once-lauded De Palma classics like Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981) and The Untouchables (1987) have been mystifyingly re-evaluated by young cinefiles as “bad movies.” An English remake of the French thriller Love Crime (2010) by Alain Corneau, Passion is too static, self-reflective and aloof to rate as a return to form but in some aspects is quintessential De Palma. Which is likely the main reason why it failed to connect with a wide audience. Watching the film is akin to seeing an ageing rock musician run through all his old hits. He can’t belt out the tunes with the same youthful fire but their familiarity still stirs something inside you. On this evidence one would argue De Palma has weathered a lot better than his nearest cinematic equivalent: Dario Argento.
All the familiar De Palma motifs are present here: psychosexual obsession, voyeurism, a split-screen sequence that contrasts a ballet performance with a giallo-esque murder, the blatant disregard of logic for the sake of bravura mind-bending plot twists along with his oft-overlooked playfully satirical sense of humour. De Palma’s abiding flaw is that he loves the game so much his characters too often become mere human pawns in an elaborate, albeit deliciously devious mousetrap. One area where Passion definitely falls short of past De Palma thrillers is, oddly enough, its visuals. Evidently De Palma and digital film aren’t such a great match. The film has a glacial, artificial look that is as unappealing as the cold, calculating characters. Despite the big stars and evident production value it looks strangely cheap, like a direct-to-video erotic thriller that just happens to have a decent cast. Additionally, the corporate intrigue aspect of the plot is just not that compelling. It is only after the film drifts into surreal mind-fuck territory that things really start to get interesting. Where De Palma does succeed is in using his familiar cinematic tricks to maintain our fascination with these psychological enigmas and their twisted mind games that cross over from dreams into reality much the same as in Femme Fatale.
It helps the film is anchored by two clearly committed and charismatic leads. As the brittle, introverted Isabelle and vampy, manipulative Christine respectively, Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams invest the increasingly absurd plot twists with utmost conviction though that is not to suggest this is strictly a two-hander. Building on the promise of her remarkable performance in slick vampire flick We Are the Night (2010), the increasingly impressive Karoline Herfurth elevates a quixotic supporting role into something special with her amazingly expressive eyes. The supporting cast of largely German actors are exemplary with only Paul Anderson proving an inexplicable lemon in the basket with an embarrassingly amateurish performance. Granted the triple-twist finale with its overtly self-referential nod to Dressed to Kill (1980) by way of Raising Cain (1992) comes across like a lazy way for De Palma to paint himself out of a corner but flaws aside, Passion proves an entertaining greatest hits package.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.