Following an extensive stint during the 1980’s and early 1990’s purveying iconic crime dramas – works that would all but define his career – Brian De Palma as of late seems infatuated with deeply seeded noir and twisting thrillers with a noticeable erotic leaning. Passion is his third late stage foray (after both Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia) into this sordid world. And while not as woefully misguided as that latter period effort, this remake of the 2010 French film Crime d’amour is more laughable than thrilling. As the dunderheaded revelations pile up against its debauched backdrop, Passion plays out more like a made for television adaptation of an erotic novel than a riveting tale of corporate backstabbing and misplaced trust.
Forever the visual storyteller, De Palma and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine certainly don’t skimp on style and unique, expressive shots and interesting alterations to the colour palates of different scenes. Alcaine has previously worked on films including The Skin I Live In and Volver, and his approach here is very reminiscent of those works. These stylistic choices never undermine what is transpiring on screen and in most instances serve to enhance what is unfolding, even if what is unfolding remains somewhat farcical. If the film’s narrative were up to par with how Passion strikes us visually, we would be discussing a very different film.
Less effective from a technical perspective is the score from Pino Donaggio, who has worked with De Palma as far back as Carrie. From the opening scene it was though I had been dropped into the world of Home Alone. While it becomes less overt later on, when his high pinged musical notes return they always make themselves known (and in an overbearing and inherently childish way). It legitimately seems pulled from another film at times. A distracting score in an already over the top film is never a promising combination.
Passion is a film of two distinct halves. The opening portion is a straightforward tale of corporate rivalry and thinly veiled friendship with the controlling and manipulative Christine (Rachel McAdams) playing mentor (at least superficially) to the ambitious Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). With product placement galore we see these two working on a campaign for a new smartphone, with Christine shamelessly pilfering credit for Isabelle’s ideas and then attempting to compensate with sob stories and general manipulation. When things escalate on the job, eventually so do things off the work floor and the film shifts gears into psychological thriller with Isabelle accused of a crime she adamantly denies.
While showing potential, Passion’s first half is simply rather dull, never delving more than superficially into this icy corporate world or showing the consequences of betrayal between co-workers, only that one slight is worth another in return. Examinations of an obsessive need for revenge can be very intriguing especially if it were to take on the corporate setting, but Passion never takes that approach either. Things kick up a notch or two as the climax approaches but any good that will be gleaned from those acts are unforgivably undermined by twists silly enough that they had me guffawing aloud at multiple moments. It’s impossible to view those instances even as some sort of subversive camp.
So too evoking far too many chuckles is the performance of McAdams, who doesn’t so much as chew the scenery as gleefully wallows in equally campy delivery. The fact that the usually immensely talented actress was miscast certainly didn’t help, but that factor combined with the nature of the material culminated in what is easily the worst performance that I have ever seen her give. Even seeing her kiss other women and strut around in skimpy lingerie could do little to soften my resolve that I was witnessing a near train wreck.
Rapace is far better as the more-ruthless-than-she-seems protégée, but she too is required to resort to overacting in order to make some scenes work at all. One such sequence taking place in a parking garage is bizarre to begin with but capping it off is, again, an unintentionally hilarious freak-out.
I found the film’s greatest strengths when it came to performances were from two supporting characters who also work at the firm. German actress Karoline Herfurth is lovely and down to earth as Isabelle’s assistant and has more to do as things escalate. She too may not be as meek as she appears. Then there is Paul Anderson as a collective love interest (or perhaps lust interest would be more fitting), who strikes a great balance between slick and charismatic. Interestingly, his formerly powerful demeanour is stripped away as Passion progresses, becoming the victim of these two power-tripping women.
Despite its intriguing ideas, Passion is the type of thriller that falls apart even more upon the briefest peek below its surface. The actions of characters are completely illogical considering with what they are involved. With all the reveals near the end, so many scenes are exposed to have been manipulative, existing merely to misdirect the audience and try and shock us with its clever twists and turns. The best of this genre thrills through well fleshed characters, clean cut but intriguing events and from time to time a shocking confession that works better because of what preceded it, not entering out of left field only to undermine the lead up.
I certainly don’t want to fathom that the iconic De Palma has no good films left in him, but with efforts like this it is immensely difficult not to at least contemplate otherwise. Gorgeously framed but clunky, phony and involuntarily comical, Passion uncomfortably straddles the line between erotica, thriller and psychological drama, neither rewarding the viewer nor giving us an engaging journey.