In four decades of filmmaking, Brian De Palma has made some good movies (e.g., Carrie, Carlito's Way, Blow Out) and some stinkers (e.g., The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars). Passion looked like a potential return to form. It's brimming with sex and style, with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as the two sultry leads. The plot about business double crosses and barely restrained lesbianism sounded intriguing. (They had me at lesbianism.)
But Passion falls into the stinker category. Deep into that category. It leapt off the diving board, missed the pool, and wound up in the middle of the bleachers. But even while it hurtled wildly off mark, Passion still did its routine with absolute seriousness, twirling, turning, twisting the entire time.
Passion is heroically bad, to the point of farce -- a successful work of unintentional stone-faced self-parody. It's so bad that it almost becomes good again as a kitsch masterpiece. Almost.
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Passion Director: Brian De Palma Rating: R Release Date: August 30, 2013 (limited)
Many scenes in Passion felt like the prelude to sex in 90s porn. Example: two women get cozy on the couch, giggly from top-shelf booze, and then in comes a skeevy-looking guy with a horndog sneer. Another example: two women in a boardroom after a meeting, one confides a deep hurt that leads to a lingering embrace neither wants to end. One more time: two women in a kitchen, one knows a dark secret about the other, and she uses said secret to force the other woman to make out with her. All that's missing are schoolgirls, French tutors, misbehaving babysitters, and pizza delivery boys.
Passion is a remake of a 2010 French film called Crime d'Amour, which starred Kristen Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier. (While we're talking erotic thrillers, let me just add that Sagnier was in a good one called Swimming Pool from 2003, which was directed by François Ozon and co-starred Charlotte Rampling.) The story involves two employees at a multinational corporation. McAdams is Christine, a kinky sociopath, and Rapace is Isabelle, a potentially kinky sociopath who works under Christine. Christine takes credit for Isabelle's smart phone ad, Isabelle gets even, and then things get really bitchy between them. "There's no backstabbing here," they tell each other. "It's business."
The ad, by the way, involves people looking at Isabelle's secretary's ass. How successful is this ad in the oddball world of Passion? They put it up on YouTube and it gets 10 million views in five hours. I assume that much traffic would have caused the internet tubes to burst. That video didn't just go viral -- it went 1918 Spanish flu.
I haven't seen Crime d'Amour. Passion probably feels less like that and more like a remake of every late-night Cinemax movie. That might have to do with the casting. McAdams plays the Kristen Scott Thomas part (i.e. the icy, manipulative older woman). Instead you have two actresses who are essentially the same age, both trying to play the demented fatale. You lose an edge without that age gap, but it does make for more enticing almost-lesbian-sex scenes. They're just goofy pseudo-seductions more than anything else. Again, the pre-sex banter from 90s porn.
Both McAdams and Rapace are good, but that needs to be qualified. They're good with bad material, so they can't rise above it. They try by going over the top, but it winds up playing like a farce. This saps all the sadism and menace from McAdams's performance, so she just seems like a cartoon villainess. She does horrible things with a mocking leer, like she just dunked on someone or desperately wants to say "Oh, little baby gonna cry? Little baby gonna cryyyyy?" Rapace is less a woman verging on a nervous breakdown and more a shrieking nutcase stumbling through existence. If she were a flower, she'd wilt at the merest huff of breath. These are supposed to be two tenacious psychopaths backstabbing, undercutting, getting revenge. They're competing for Miss Psycho Bitch from Hell 2012, but instead they seem like they're in some spoof of erotic thrillers.
Passion would have been an ideal movie for Paul Verhoeven to direct. He'd tease the kink out of this in a way that would have felt provocative and interesting. With De Palma at the helm, it's still interesting to watch, but maybe not in the way he intended. All Passion mustered from me were confused shakes of the head, a couple facepalms, and unintentional laughs. It's like some kind of anti-alchemy. It turns quality actors into histrionic amateurs, eroticism into slapstick. And there's the overbearing score from the usually reliable Pino Donaggio. There's a little Kenny G-sounding saxophone for good measure, and it sounds more dated than "Songbird," yet somehow less sensual. ("Songbird" is as sensual as going to the dentist.)
And I haven't even touched the second half of the film. The first half of the movie had the chintzy lit-for-television look of a Shannon Tweed movie (she would have been perfect for the McAdams role, no joke). The second half turns cold blue and Dutch angled, with inexplicable diagonals of light from unseen venetian blinds. It's expressive, sure, and it's ballsy, but boy is it goofy. And we get De Palma split screens, a bunch of style for style's sake, roaming cameras, and one nonsensical plot twist after another. What was that? You'd like a "Thank goodness it was only a dream" fake out? You get more than one in Passion. There's even mention of a dead twin sister. Her name was probably Good Judgement.
Here's the weirdest thing: I can't hate a movie like Passion. It's so lovably awful, so bafflingly silly. That's what the movie is more than anything else: silly. It's like a dachshund wearing pearls and four tiny high heels. I had a good time watching it, giggling as the actors vamped to salvage the film. This is less like classic De Palma and more like Tommy Wiseau's homage to Brian De Palma. But you can't hate something like that. De Palma diehards will love this, though. They'll enjoy the excesses, the camp, the oodles of self-reference, the exercises in style. De Palma, at the very least, has succeeded in satisfying them.
But, oh yeah, the lesbian sex. How could I forget? That's probably what brought you here in the first place. For a film ostensibly about aggressive lesbians who want to screw and/or kill each other, there's nothing. There's some straight sex, but it's as bland as plain yogurt. No scene is that erotic or daring, and nothing pushes boundaries too far. It's the mere possibility of lesbianism and sordid sex without even the slightest fulfillment; you'll find more lesbianism in an all-boys boarding school. Passion is bad art that should have aspired to be good exploitation.