Hey, Make Me Over
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Brian De Palma, U.S./Germany, IFC Films
In Passion Brian De Palma has found a brand new trash aesthetic. In the past, his high-gloss genre thrillers have often flirted with trappings and milieux one might associate with “low” culture. These have been tales populated by the odd hooker (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) or mad doctor with split personalities (Raising Cain), set in the L.A. porn underworld (Body Double) or an Atlantic City casino (Snake Eyes). Passion, however, begins with a close-up of a sleek apple laptop, its insignia aimed at the audience before the camera floats up to catch two faces basking in the glow of its screen. Here are toothy ad-agency shark Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her soft-spoken, round-faced protégé, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), laboring over ideas for a big new campaign: “Our smart phone has to be the smartest,” says Christine, grasping for wit amidst banality. The film ensconces these two women, destined for escalating savagery within and outside of the workplace, in an environment full of glittering fetish objects of material-driven culture, whether those are iPhones, laptops, or ominously displayed sex toys. Passion thrillingly, and humorously, recontextualizes De Palma’s regard for trash by reveling instead in a new kind of junk, the stuff of high-end consumerism.
In understanding De Palma’s latest, it’s crucial to note that Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, the disposable 2010 thriller of which Passion is a remake, was not set in the superficial, high-octane world of advertising, but rather within the drab white walls of an agricultural industry firm. While Corneau’s original plot does hinge on an act of surveillance, Passion amplifies the tale into an endless hall of mirrors and cameras, screens within screens, monitors of different shapes and sizes; this does not just create a sense of ever-shifting paranoia but makes Christine and Isabelle less flesh-and-blood characters than refracted and recorded images of themselves—and thus as untrustworthy as facsimiles.
Corneau’s film came across as a fairly literal tale of office treachery and female competition; De Palma both heightens and calls into question the original’s essential misogyny by making it, as with so many of his films, about voyeurism and the power that comes from either being the watched or the watcher. Whereas Love Crime’s Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, by virtue of the disparity in their ages, enacted a rather simplistic mother-daughter, dominant-submissive, table-turning scenario, peers McAdams and Rapace, both in their early thirties, are more like Hitchcockian doubles, teased as surrogate sisters, lovers, and, perhaps most importantly, established as intellectual and professional equals. In other words, they are alternate versions of each other, just as Passion is a new version of a preexisting film. And appropriately for this remake of a film about a woman who steals another’s ideas, De Palma has fashioned a film about the act of remaking, refashioning not only Love Crime but also works from his own oeuvre, which have in turn historically been criticized for being unofficial Hitchcock remakes.
That description may make the film sound lugubriously self-referential, but Passion is light on its feet. Artificiality is the name of the distinctively De Palma game here, from the workplace-as-fashion-catwalk aesthetic to the satisfying archness of the two lead performances. McAdams, who, perhaps because of her wholesome, enormous facial features, is often asked to turn on the good-girl charm, is effectively reprising her bitch shtick from Mean Girls here, and it’s a welcome return. With her little-girl voice and transparent pout, she always seems like a high-schooler playing dress-up, an essential disparity that many will scoff as “bad casting,” but which ultimately highlights the superficiality and stunted-growth mindset of the milieu: after all, these are sophisticates who have to tap into their inner tween to properly appeal to the public’s craving for stuff, with the American market their ultimate goal (Christine is angling for a New York transfer from her German office). Rapace, who heavily rehearsed her deer-in-headlights look in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is called upon to radiate blandness, and her plasticky chipmunk facelessness only grows more frighteningly serene as the film progresses to its Grand Guignol final half-hour.
As shot with a mixture of blinding-white austerity and seductive panache by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who gave Almodóvar’s med-fetish dramedy The Skin I Live In its lovely texture), the exquisite-corporate visuals of Passion eloquently provide backdrop for the escalating one-upmanship enacted by these two backstabbers. Once Isabelle’s cell phone ad proves a gargantuan success with the execs at the New York office, Christine claims it as her own work. This lights a vengeful fire in Isabelle’s eyes that burns even brighter than Melanie Griffith’s when Sigourney Weaver stole her radio-merger idea in Working Girl. Never mind that the so-called brilliant idea is as goofy as it gets: a pure De Palma gambit in which a leggy model puts her iPhone in the back pocket of her jeans, and records from this veritable ass-cam the approving glances of passersby. Christine’s response when Isabelle questions her thievery is a beatific smile and an assertion that “this is business.” At first, Isabelle seems to accept this and go with the flow, yet it becomes increasingly clear that her naiveté is, like everything else in Passion, just an act.
Christine and Isabelle’s relationship is predicated upon a series of humiliations, great and small. At a ritzy, anonymous party, Christine encourages Isabelle to approach an important potential client and insinuate herself into his conversation, yet rather than professionally seduce him she ends up looking a sheepish fool and scampers back. Later, Isabelle will mount professional revenge for Christine’s thievery by going behind her back with an even more spectacular campaign that becomes an automatic viral sensation (“Ten million views in five hours!” is the exciting result, betraying either distrustful De Palma’s Luddite streak or parodying the culture of excessive instant gratification). Later, Christine will broadcast a hidden-camera video of Isabelle in a particularly pathetic, destructive scenario, which proves her final emotional straw. As if to cement the idea that all these scenarios of mutual professional humiliation are sexual in nature, De Palma even includes a mysterious image of a man in a leather dog mask on his hands and knees tying a necklace around Christine’s neck while she reclines in a bubble bath.
If it’s difficult to tell what’s business and what’s personal in the film’s intricate set-up, it’s even harder to separate reality from fantasy as the film slithers along to its boffo third act. Here is where De Palma breaks most drastically from Corneau’s film, plummeting down a rabbit hole of delirium that proves he was just using the original narrative as a basic skeleton to indulge in the ridiculous sublime. Whereas Corneau set his narrative up in a clinical and cold-blooded manner (perfectly acceptable for the sleek austerity of the setting), De Palma plunges into excess, positing the characters’ actions as dreams within dreams, and using nightmarishly canted frames and elegant split-screens to toy with both the audience’s perspective and his characters’ subjectivity (Pino Donaggio’s driving, tango-ish score begins to have an identity crisis of its own, starting to sample bits from Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” foreshadowing a thrillingly staged ballet scene). There’s an audacity to this that elevates it far above matters of style: De Palma is making pliable a rigidly established film that had clear emotional in and out points, reconfiguring its emotional makeup in a way that confuses, or even rejects, easy identification—with both character and reality.
In a sense, this is the most apt form of remake, digging in with both hands and finding the material’s potential to be something else. Passion might at first appear to be Love Crime’s identical other, but just as Christine might never have actually had the twin sister she claims to have tragically lost in a suspiciously heartfelt monologue, appearances can be deceiving, and the truth can be double-edged. In the final half-hour, Passion barely resembles Love Crime at all, preferring instead to reconfigure the climax of De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill, itself a hyper-stylized, übersexual reimagining of Psycho, into a bizarre, free-associative nightmare. One could read the final segment as a main character’s guilt-stricken fever dream leading straight to hell, or simply as De Palma’s confession that all cinema is remake. Either way, in the movies we’re living on borrowed time.