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 â€ślowâ€ť 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 protĂ©gĂ©, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), laboring over ideas for a big new campaign: â€śOur smart phone has to be the smartest,â€ť 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 Palmaâ€™s regard for trash by reveling instead in a new kind of junk, the stuff of high-end consumerism.
In understanding De Palmaâ€™s latest, itâ€™s crucial to note that Alain Corneauâ€™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 Corneauâ€™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 themselvesâ€”and thus as untrustworthy as facsimiles.
Corneauâ€™s film came across as a fairly literal tale of office treachery and female competition; De Palma both heightens and calls into question the originalâ€™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 Crimeâ€™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 anotherâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€śbad casting,â€ť 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 publicâ€™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 Scottâ€™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 JosĂ© Luis Alcaine (who gave AlmodĂłvarâ€™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 Isabelleâ€™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 Isabelleâ€™s eyes that burns even brighter than Melanie Griffithâ€™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. Christineâ€™s response when Isabelle questions her thievery is a beatific smile and an assertion that â€śthis is business.â€ť At first, Isabelle seems to accept this and go with the flow, yet it becomes increasingly clear that her naivetĂ© is, like everything else in Passion, just an act.
Christine and Isabelleâ€™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 Christineâ€™s thievery by going behind her back with an even more spectacular campaign that becomes an automatic viral sensation (â€śTen million views in five hours!â€ť is the exciting result, betraying either distrustful De Palmaâ€™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 Christineâ€™s neck while she reclines in a bubble bath.
If itâ€™s difficult to tell whatâ€™s business and whatâ€™s personal in the filmâ€™s intricate set-up, itâ€™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 Corneauâ€™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 charactersâ€™ actions as dreams within dreams, and using nightmarishly canted frames and elegant split-screens to toy with both the audienceâ€™s perspective and his charactersâ€™ subjectivity (Pino Donaggioâ€™s driving, tango-ish score begins to have an identity crisis of its own, starting to sample bits from Debussyâ€™s â€śPrĂ©lude Ă lâ€™aprĂ¨s-midi dâ€™un faune,â€ť foreshadowing a thrillingly staged ballet scene). Thereâ€™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 identificationâ€”with both character and reality.
In a sense, this is the most apt form of remake, digging in with both hands and finding the materialâ€™s potential to be something else. Passion might at first appear to be Love Crimeâ€™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 Palmaâ€™s own Dressed to Kill, itself a hyper-stylized, ĂĽbersexual reimagining of Psycho, into a bizarre, free-associative nightmare. One could read the final segment as a main characterâ€™s guilt-stricken fever dream leading straight to hell, or simply as De Palmaâ€™s confession that all cinema is remake. Either way, in the movies weâ€™re living on borrowed time.