Inevitably in almost every Brian DePalma thriller, there comes a point where suspense, titillation and the director’s élan in conveying the collision of the two occurring evokes the orgasmic sensation in cinematic terms that’s often denied to his characters in carnal ones so as to keep raising the stakes. That moment in DePalma’s latest film “Passion” arrives later than most, which may be why the film has drawn tepid response from its early festival plays. Yet for fans of the filmmaker, who don’t have to wait longer that the first few mischievous notes of a decadent score that plays over a pitch-black title card, “Passion” is hardly a disappointment, serving as DePalma’s most gleefully pleasurable film since 2000’s “Femme Fatale.”
While nowhere near as complete a picture as that film, “Passion” has taken the premise of the late French director Alain Corneau’s “Love Crime,” which featured Ludvine Sagnier as a studious assistant to a corporate middle manager (chillingly assayed by Kristin Scott Thomas), and turns it into something decidedly more European. Where Corneau’s film was coldly clinical, depicting how the assistant, tired of seeing her boss take credit for the work she had done, applied the same quiet efficiency in plotting her revenge, “Passion,” true to its title, runs more hotblooded with Noomi Rapace serving as Rachel McAdams’ underling. The two work at an ad agency, but less time is spent at the office than the original film, with Rapace’s Isabelle unconcerned enough with being conspicuous that she’s open to appearing on a sex tape with McAdams’ Christine’s beau and Christine using a limo ride to coo into Isabelle’s ear that now that she’s admired, she wants to be loved. In this version, the role of a female co-worker (Karoline Herfurth) just below Isabelle on the chain of command has also been beefed up to add to the intrigue.
However, for the first part of the film, the intrigue is limited to wondering whether DePalma has become too self-aware, content to cover up a skimpy plot with even thinner characters with the sleek, garish visual flourishes that he thinks the audience wants. Every touch of style feels heavy and dutiful, the schemes both literally and figuratively dim as the palette drowns in darkness. The film never resembles a recognizable reality, especially when an asinine cameraphone commercial created by Isabelle, emphasis on ass, becomes a viral sensation (“Ten million hits in five hours!” a co-worker exclaims), leading possibly to a promotion for Christine, the impetus for Isabelle’s revenge. Suddenly, the film enters a world DePalma can make sense of, a realm where the only ones working the angles harder than he is are the characters.
Though both leads appear to be game for anything the film has in store for them – the sex toys, the sapphic advances, the Kabuki masks – only McAdams seems to truly be in on the joke, relishing every every double entendre or double cross to pass through her perfectly affixed ruby red lips. However, Rapace, sans the nosering and the body ink from “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” continues to suggest what was so effective in portraying rebellious posturing once can be frustratingly stiff elsewhere. To some degree, Rapace’s limited range of emotiveness works as cool detachment after she attempts to liberate herself from the hierarchy of her workplace, but it’s only when her character begins to loosen up that the film can too, even as her stare remains frozen.
Once “Passion” kicks into its second gear, it’s as if DePalma finds his compass, his peerless sense of geography once again evident in navigating a gnarled plot as it unravels, presented elegantly in the physical spaces where it unfolds. Shamelessly overwrought yet carefully constructed, it’s at once an acknowledgement of the times and the work of a true master.
“Passion” will play the New York Film Festival on September 29th at Alice Tully Hall, October 1st and 11th at the Francesca Beale Theater and October 6th at the Walter Reade Theater. It will be released in the U.S. by Entertainment One.