Having reached a nadir in his mercurial career with conspicuous flops The Black Dahlia (2006) and Redacted (2007), Brian De Palma returns after a half-decade hiatus with the glossily twisty Euro-thriller Passion. And while this steamy chronicle of professional and romantic jealousies at a Berlin ad-agency — a sort of “Mad Women” — showcases eye-catching co-lead turns from Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, remaking Alain Corneau‘s 2010 French noir Love Crime proves less a comeback for De Palma and more what economists call a “dead cat bounce.”
Generously granted a Venice competition slot five years after the Iraq War shocker Redacted took best director honors, this overheated, adults-only stew of sapphic tensions appears an unlikely candidate for Lido silverware, as the impressive Rapace faces some stiff competition in a crowded best actress field. Distribution status in North America likely will depend on its fate at the Toronto International Film Festival where it debuts Sept. 11, De Palma’s 72nd birthday.
Already lined up for theatrical release in France, Germany and the Netherlands in February, Passion likely will end up nabbing a run in U.S. cinemas thanks to the presence of Sherlock Holmes alumna McAdams and fast-rising Swedish star Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who popped up in the most recent Baker Street adaptation A Game of Shadows. The ongoing popularity of De Palma’s back catalog, likely to be boosted by the upcoming Carrie remake, also will add some marquee appeal. But overall the blandly titled Passion appeals as a proposition for the small screen via VOD and DVD, where, as with Femme Fatale (2002), the director’s campy excesses eventually might attract a cult following.
Emerging from New York’s semi-underground countercultural cinema scene of the late ’60s, De Palma established himself as a supreme visual stylist in the next decade thanks to breakthroughs including Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie. But while his career has included creative and commercial peaks such as The Untouchables, Mission Impossible and the phenomenally enduring Scarface, his track record always has been unpredictably erratic. Redacted was De Palma’s disastrously misguided attempt to engage with hot-button geopolitical issues, and now he wisely lowers his sights and retreats to much more comfortable and familiar terrain.
Starring Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, Love Crime was released in France two days before Corneau’s death in August 2010 and a year later attracted respectable notices and returns during its brief spell in American art houses. Putting his more luridly operatic spin on the chilly original, De Palma switches the action from Paris to Berlin and alters the dynamic between the central characters by making them roughly the same age.
A blond, gregarious and glamorous American, McAdams’ Christine is an energetic and ambitious highflyer who’s keen to relocate to the company’s New York operation. Her colleague Isabelle (Rapace) is a European of indeterminate nationality: mousy and black-clad, she’s an “all work and no play” sort who never switches off even when asleep. When Christine takes credit for one of Isabelle’s edgy concepts — “there’s no backstabbing here; this is business,” she purrs — tensions between the pair quickly escalate.
There are personal complications as well as professional frictions: Isabelle is clandestinely “seeing” Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson), Christine nurses a secret crush on her colleague/rival, and then there’s underling Dani (Karoline Herfurth), who might not be as anodyne as she initially appears. Indeed, with Anderson — yet another Game of Shadows graduate — proving a somewhat dull third point in the love triangle, the emergence of Dani in the picture’s second half ranks alongside the script’s few welcome surprises.
By this point, however, proceedings have taken a wayward turn down some unfortunate dead-end alleyways. A grisly murder, the ensuing police investigation — featuring some blundering but impeccably Anglophone cops — and the questionable mental state of a key character are cues for De Palma and his veteran Spanish cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine to unleash all manner of distorted lighting effects and camera angles.
The score by Italian great Pino Donaggio, a frequent De Palma collaborator in his heyday, also takes a heavy-handed turn. The intention evidently is to keep us off-balance and add edgy ambiguity to what might or might not be real, in a picture studded and ultimately overloaded with hallucinatory dream sequences. But the impact is more irritatingly distracting than pleasurably disorienting, giving proceedings the disreputably high-toned cheesiness of 1980s erotic thrillers.
The director does get to deploy his trademark split-screen technique in one attention-grabbing sequence juxtaposing ballet and murder that achieves the desired confusion in terms of narrative sleight of hand. In general, however, the impression is that De Palma is indulging himself with homages to his own Hitchcockian greatest hits, with results that veer close to self-parody on occasion and emphasize just how far this once-outstanding director’s creative star has plummeted.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: SBS Productions
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams, Paul Anderson, Karoline Herfurth, Rainer Bock
Director-screenwriter: Brian De Palma, based on the film Love Crime, written by Alain Corneau and Nathalie Carter
Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd
Executive producers: Alfred Hürmer, Valérie Boyer
Director of photography: José Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Cornelia Ott
Music: Pino Donaggio
Costume designer: Karen Muller-Serrau
Editor: François Gédigier
Sales agent: Wild Bunch, Paris
No MPAA rating, 101 minutess