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Days of De Palma (Part 19): Passion (2012)

I am excited to have finally arrived at the end of my journey through the filmography of master director Brian De Palma.  (Well, the end for now – Mr. De Palma is alive and well, and hopefully has additional films in his future!)  2007’s Redacted was a rough watch — click here for my review of that film, which I strongly disliked.  It’s reception must have shaken Mr. De Palma as well, as he didn’t release another film for five years, until 2012’s Passion.

Passion.cropped

Even though I strongly disliked Redacted, I was excited to dive into Passion, because this film looked like a return to a classic De Palma type of story: an erotically-charged mystery/suspense film.  Passion stars two beautiful women who are also each great actresses: Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams.  Seeing these two women matched with Brian De Palma looked like a recipe for fun, and of course stills like the one I have included above suggested that this film would contain some classic De Palma sexy fun.

I enjoyed Passion, but like so many of the late-career De Palma films, it didn’t quite ever come together as a completely successful film.  The whole thing felt somewhat half-baked to me.

Passion is certainly gorgeous to look at (a welcome relief after the ugly, clumsy-looking Redacted).  The film is sumptuously shot, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. De Palma’s many carefully-constructed, often-unusual-looking compositions throughout the film.

Many of Mr. De Palma’s favorite stylistic devices make a welcome return here in this film.  We get a split focus shot early in the film, when boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson) is on the couch and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is in the mirror, asking about Christine (Rachel McAdams).  We have to wait for a while for a signature De Palma split-screen shot, but when it comes it’s a doozy: a long, continuous shot of a drunk Dirk confronting Christine, while Isabelle watches the opera.  This a wonderfully tense, sexy, suspenseful sequence that continues as Christine showers after her party guests have left, while meanwhile we see someone entering her apartment.  This sequence also cleverly incorporates a classic De Palma P.O.V. device, as the camera shifts to show us the intruder’s point of view as he/she sneaks around Christine’s apartment while, on the other side of the split screen, we continue to follow Christine’s movements.  This is a tour de force sequence and a highlight of the movie.

We also get a series of additional P.O.V. shots from Isabelle’s perspective as her life falls apart: first as she walks to the door when the cops arrive at her apartment, then later when the detective questions her, and then again in the lawyer’s office, and then again as she walks through the prison to her cell.  I love the way those sequences fit together to show us the crumbling of Isabelle’s life.

The ass-cam that Isabelle and Christine work up together feels like the apotheosis of Mr. De Palma’s filmography, and his obsession with cameras and being watched.  This theme continues to run throughout this film, such as when Isabelle’s boyfriend tapes their having sex on camera and Christine’s predilection for recording everything that goes on in her company’s office building.

The film also dives deeply into the Hitchcockian obsession with twins and doubling and mistaken identity (a thematic element that has repeatedly found its way into Mr. De Palma’s films, such as Femme Fatale).  We see that Christine likes having sex with a man wearing a blonde mask — it’s sort of like she’s having sex with her twin sister.  (What a twisted notion!)  And of course the idea of a twin sister comes back into play in the film’s (mostly-absurd) climax.

I like a film that features complex, not-so-easily understood characters, but there are so many weird choices made by the film’s narrative that made it hard for me to get into the story and into these characters.  I found it curious that the film would, very early on, show Isabelle cheating with Christine’s boyfriend Dirk.  That dulls the hurt, two minutes later, when Christine takes credit at her company’s meeting for Isabelle’s idea.  I feel like the early going of the film wanted us to have sympathy for Isabelle and be rooting for her.  But I found that I didn’t have any sympathy for her at all, because Isabelle WAS sleeping with Christine’s boyfriend, and because we see her be so inexplicably cruel to her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), just as Christine is cruel to her (Isabelle).  Meanwhile, we don’t have much sympathy for Christine either because we quickly learn that she is just as crazy as Isabelle — we see that Christine uses cameras in her office building to record everything and embarrass Isabelle at their office party, and I already mentioned Christine’s bizarre blonde-mask sex fetish.  This movie doesn’t exactly give the audience anyone easy to root for!

(When we first see Isabelle taking pills and then calling a doctor, I thought the movie was hinting that she had some secret in her past.  But apparently she’s just a nutcase, huh?  We never learn what first pushed Isabelle into her unhinged state.  I’d expected that she’d have been driven to that by the tough, sometimes cruel Christine — that we’d see that Christine had pushed the gentle Isabelle too far — but no, I guess it turns out that she was just nuts from the beginning.  This feels to me like a very weird choice for the filmmakers to have made.)

After the incredible split-screen & P.O.V. sequence that I described above, depicting the fateful night at Christine’s apartment, I finally started to have sympathy for Isabelle, and I felt myself at last starting to get into the movie and invest in Isabelle’s struggle to understand and find a way out of the crazy circumstance in which she found herself.  (Also, after a period in which Isabelle appeared to be inexplicably and confusingly acting extremely erratically, almost as if she had been drugged, it was good to see her acting like a normal person again.)  I quite enjoyed this stretch in the second half of the film.  But then, darn it, the film went and lost me again as the characters again began behaving in difficult-to-understand ways.  Why is Isabelle — at this low point in her life — still so horribly cruel to her assistant Dani?  Why is it so horrifying to Isabelle that Dani is attracted to her?

The film’s final stretch left me scratching my head with its many unanswered questions and continued bizarre, hard-to-understand behavior by the characters.  Why would Dani trust a woman who was an admitted murderer?  Why would the police inspector come visit in the middle of the night?  Why does the burner phone ring if it’s new and unlisted?  Was there really a twin sister?  How does she get the bloody scarf from police evidence?  Are we really doing this “it was all a dream” ending again, Mr. De Palma?  (See also: Carrie, Femme Fatale.)  Really??  Sigh.  All that never-explained business at the end with the possible-twin-sister just made me groan.  That was just unexplained silliness with no point.  It wasn’t scary or shocking, just ridiculous and eye-rolling.

As with many of Mr. De Palma’s previous films (from Dressed to Kill to Femme Fatale to The Black Dahlia), Passion contains some uncomfortably old-fashioned ideas about lesbians, specifically the idea that women who are lesbians will nevertheless fall for a suitably hunky man.  Here in Passion, we see that both Isabelle and Christine seem to lust after Dirk (and both have sex with him), but the two women are also attracted to one another as well.  (At least, Isabelle is attracted to Christine; it’s hard to tell if Christine feels the same way or if she is just manipulating Isabelle.)  I’m honestly not sure if I should applaud Mr. De Palma for being progressive in his views of sexuality as being a fluid spectrum, with his bisexual characters able to be drawn to both men and women, OR if I should be appalled by an out-of-date mentality that lesbians really would be swayed out of their lesbianism by a good-looking man.

For an erotic thriller, Passion wound up being pretty tame.  Mr. De Palma avoided the frequent nudity that characterized his earlier work.  I am not complaining about this — the film feels more adult by eschewing a ton of gratuitous nudity.  But for a movie called Passion, everyone in the film turned out to be rather cold and calculating, which I found surprising.

In the ranking of De Palma films, I consider Passion very much of a piece with Femme Fatale (the 2002 film made almost exactly a decade previously).  They’re very similar in tone and style.  Both are noir-ish films with sexy women as the leads and that feature a lot of playing around with mistaken identity and doubling.  Both are skillfully made and gorgeous to look at, with wonderful cinematography and some terrific De Palma stylistic twists.  But both also fall apart at the end, with convoluted storytelling that loses sight of its characters.  I enjoyed watching Passion, but I doubt this will be a film that I will revisit any time soon.

And so, wow, here we are, at last at the end!  Mr. De Palma apparently has a new film, Lights Out, scheduled for release in 2017, but for now, Passion remains Mr. De Palma’s most recent film.  What fun this movie-watching project has been!  And I’m not quite done yet.  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on Noah Baumbach’s wonderful documentary De Palma — a fascinating look back at Mr. De Palma’s filmography — and I’ll also have a summary of this entire re-watching project.  See you back here soon!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000); Part 16 — Femme Fatale (2002); Part 17 — The Black Dahlia (2006); Part 18 — Redacted (2007).

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