Oh, Brian De Palma. What a special, trashy, highly competent auteur you are! No one makes lurid erotic thrillers with more consistency or panache than this guy. Some De Palma films are bad and some are good, but what they all have in common is that at some point while watching them you shake your head, chuckle, and say to yourself, “Oh, Brian De Palma.”
“Passion,” his first film in five years, is certainly no exception. It’s a remake of the 2010 French thriller “Crime d’amour,” but it’s also a remake of De Palma’s own filmography, a greatest hits collection of femmes fatales, blondes, doppelgangers, bisexuality, murder, masks, and voyeurism. But unlike his most enjoyable excursions into this realm — “Dressed to Kill,” say, or even “Body Double” — “Passion” feels like a rehash. We’re used to the director borrowing from Hitchcock; now he’s borrowing from himself, a copy of a copy.
No denying he does it with flair, though. Notwithstanding the warm-blooded title, “Passion” is set in cold, sterile offices and apartments in the forbidding city of Berlin, within the cutthroat world of advertising. Christine Sanford (Rachel McAdams) runs the local office of an international firm, eager to impress the company’s founder and namesake, J.J. Koch (Dominic Raacke), enough to be promoted to a New York position. She’s been working on a smartphone campaign with a protegee, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), who alternates between idolizing her boss and envying her. Christine, as manipulative as she is beautiful, uses this to her advantage, flirting with Isabelle, fawning over her, and then taking credit for her ideas.
A similar dynamic is established between Isabelle and her own assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth). Dani is smitten with Isabelle, possessive of her, indignant over the way Christine treats her. Isabelle, no slouch herself in the manipulation department, wields professional and sexual power over Dani in much the same way Christine does it to her.
Just to make things more complicated, there is also a man involved. He’s Dirk Harriman (Paul Anderson), a business associate, Christine’s boyfriend, and, soon enough, Isabelle’s lover. Christine, fond of toys, masks, and other kinky accoutrements, is bored in bed with Dirk; Isabelle is decidedly not. Weak-willed and malleable, Dirk can be swayed to either side of the Christine-vs-Isabelle war.
Much of the film is centered around these four characters gaining leverage over one another, with Christine and Isabelle jockeying for dominance at the ad agency while Dani and Dirk hold on tight to their own trump cards and blackmail material. (Nobody is clean here.) Isabelle strikes back against one of Christine’s underhanded ploys, only to learn no one can out-nasty her. If you thought Christine was a poisonous viper when she was merely trying to step on a colleague’s neck, imagine what she’s like when the colleague tries to step on hers.
It all sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? A heaping helping of betrayal, backstabbing, and business, mixed with sex, scandal, and spying? And once we get to the crux of the story — a murder that several people had motive to commit — it does become a salacious whodunit that plays out entertainingly for a while. Leading up to it, though, De Palma drags in far more baggage than he has any intention of dealing with. Christine’s story about her twin sister; her sexual preoccupation with masks; the imbalanced relationships and reversed gender roles: all this and more is laid out, then never really addressed, as if De Palma brought a box full of toys and then lost interest in most of them.
The last half-hour is more focused; unfortunately, that’s also where the plot collapses into absurdity, with ludicrous revelations, over-the-top villainy, and some rather implausible machinations. This is where the hollowness of the whole enterprise becomes glaringly obvious. There’s no depth here, no psychological observation, no real commentary on gender politics. It’s just salacious goofiness that is eventually downright campy. You could make a case for De Palma intending it that way — except that real camp happens accidentally, not on purpose.
So what did De Palma want? Probably the reaction he got: mild interest, occasional intrigue, a lot of chuckling and head-shaking. I think he just wanted more of it. That’s hard to pull off, though, when you’re playing the same tune you’ve been strumming for 40 years.
C+ (1 hr., 31 min.; )
Originally published in City Weekly.