TIFF 2012: PASSION Review

     September 13, 2012

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There’s a difference between “old-school” and “out-of-touch”, and Brian De Palma‘s Passion disappointingly falls into the latter.  In an attempt to dig into his old bag of tricks when making a sexual thriller, Passion starts out promising, but then slowly devolves into a series of gimmicks and decisions that render the movie increasingly cheesy until it becomes unintentionally hilarious.  De Palma revisits woman’s sexual duality, but with Passion, his attempt feels like a mash-up of previous ideas played out to disastrous results.  The score is corny, the performances feel stilted, the cinematography is heavy-handed, and the twists become inane.  Passion is a throwback that should simply be thrown away.

Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) work together for a marketing firm.  The two are busy trying to figure out how to market a new phone, and Isabelle and her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) come up with an ad that wows the higher-ups.  Christine, who is always about five seconds away from lezzing out with Isabelle, steals credit for the idea, and ignites a professional rivalry with her co-worker that quickly turns personal.  To further the corporate intrigue (which has all the tension of a training video), Christine is also covering the embezzlement of five million Euros by Isabelle’s cheating boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson).

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Passion begins with plenty of potential by returning to the themes of De Palma’s Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Femme Fatale, specifically with regards to dual identities as it relates to sexuality.  From the beginning, Christine is comparing herself to Isabelle, and then trying to possess her.  “You’re more like me than you think,” Christine tells her co-worker.  Isabelle responds by repeating Christine’s actions through means of retaliation although she soon discovers she’s out of her league. The film is also littered with symbols of fractured identities like a mask the kinky Christine has made so that her lovers can wear it.  De Palma has always embraced a level of sexploitation in his movies, and the film feels like it could tip into a Skinemax movie at any moment.

And eventually it does.  De Palma’s direction seems intent on tearing apart his own movie by drowning it in whatever terrible element he can find.  Pino Donaggio‘s atrocious score haunts the film from start to finish, but it could be ignored if it were the only thing wrong with the movie.  The music would simply be an unfortunate choice forced upon a thoughtful movie where the tension of the characters feels well-designed.  That is until the credibility of the relationships start falling apart, and McAdams and Rapace seemingly forget how to act.  They seem to be confused on what kind of movie they’re supposed to be in.  Is it knowingly camp, or is De Palma making an honest return to his work of the 1980s?  The actresses seem caught in between an uncertain style, and their ambivalence shows.

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Perhaps De Palma is trying to show how Isabelle is sinking further into madness, and the heightened emotions are playing out through the abrasive direction, but this change radically diminishes what comes before.  Halfway through Passion, the cinematography becomes almost nothing but canted angles with all the light coming through window blinds (because, as per usual, bars show a character is trapped by their situation).  Paired with Donaggio’s cheesy music, the style of Passion becomes too much to bear.

The style is made even worse by being layered over a story that becomes ridiculously stupid as it moves along.  The corporate nonsense slows down the momentum at the outset, but the film at least has the energy of the sexual tension and identity issues between Christine and Isabelle.  But by the third act, the movie transforms into an episode of Law & Order crossed with one of the worst kind of twists a film can have, and then doing that twist three or four times.  Passion could at least hide behind the excuse of parody except the movie is completely straight-faced in its first-act.

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There may be some kind of internal thematic logic ticking underneath Passion, but it’s not worth examination when it’s trapped under such a crummy plot that’s poorly directed, acted, shot, and scored.  It’s frustrating and sad to watch De Palma’s movie spiral wildly out of control when earlier in his career he mastered the art of combining a pulpy yarn with thoughtful themes.   Passion doesn’t feel like a return to form for De Palma as much as it feels like a director desperately trying to recapture his previous success and coming up dreadfully short.

Rating: D

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