One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Cult-Movie Review: Passion (2013)
Brian De Palma’s
new film, Passion (2013) is a remake of Love Crime (2010), a
French movie about the cruel milieu of big business, and the rivalry/attraction
between two women locked in that cut-throat world.
As one might
expect, however, De Palma corkscrews the whole affair, and in the process creates
a work of art totally of his own design, one that focuses intently on the ideas
of narcissism and voyeurism in the Web 2.0 Age.
If you’re a
long-time fan of Brian De Palma’s films you will no doubt remember the director’s
twin fascinations with gadgets and voyeurism.
Many of his movies from the 1970s and 1980s involve vans secretly filled
with bulky surveillance equipment (Sisters , The Fury ) and
protagonists who develop special cameras or other devices designed exclusively
to watch or listen to unwitting quarry (Dressed to Kill , Blow
Well, I suspect
Mr. De Palma must be a happy camper these days, because in 2013 we have finally
arrived in a world in which these obsessions with “seeing” others have been made
exponentially easier and more mainstream
by iPhone Cameras, web-cams, the Internet, and other technological innovations.
Accordingly, Passionis a thriller about blackmail, extortion, and one-upmanship in the epoch of
the “Send Button,” when one flick of
a finger can ruin a career, destroy a life, or send someone to jail for murder.
Passion is veritably obsessed with the vindictive release of private or
guarded information into the public arena, and the catastrophic fall-out and
public humiliation that occurs in its aftermath. It is this public humiliation, and fear of
such humiliation, that leads to the film’s double murders.
and at times quite funny, Passionre-asserts De Palma’s total mastery
of technique and style. The reviews have
been poisonous, however, perhaps in part because many audiences and critics are
simply out of practice reading the film grammar Palma punctuates his film with.
In an age of CGI comic-book movies, De
Palma’s thrillers -- with their twists
and turns, mirrors and facades -- require active engagement, and that’s an
art disappearing nearly as fast as De Palma’s visually-canny brand of
The fun thing
about a movie like Passion is watching it once, trying to get a handle on it, and
then watching it again, this time for all the little details and connections
you may have missed on a first viewing.
“There’s no back-stabbing
multi-national advertising company, Koch Image International, headquartered in
Europe, a manipulative executive, Christine Stanford (Rachel McAdams) brazenly
steals credit for her subordinate Isabelle’s (Noomi Rapace) new marketing
advertisement, all while claiming it’s “nothing
personal, just business.”
It may be very
personal, however, since Isabelle has had an affair with Dirk Harriman (Paul
Anderson), Christine’s lover, and this could be the boss’s idea of payback.
On the advice of
her assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth), Isabelle releases her advertising
commercial directly on YouTube and it goes viral, racking up 10 million hits in
one night and making her a super-star in the company.
When Isabelle is
awarded with a posting to New York which Christine had coveted, Christine
responds by humiliating her subordinate second time, this time at a company
party. Specifically, Christine shows the
partygoer’s CCTV footage of Isabelle having a nervous breakdown in her car.
When Christine is
brutally murdered in her apartment by a masked assailant, the police
immediately suspect Isabelle, and -- loopy
on sleeping medicine -- she confesses to the crime.
When her head is
clear, however, Isabelle attempts to prove her alibi: her attendance at the
ballet Afternoon of a Faun on the
night of the murder.
Soon, the evidence
supports Isabelle’s assertion of innocence, and she is able to go free.
after Dirk is identified as Christine’s apparent killer, Isabelle meets with
Dani, and learns that her assistant knows something about the crime in question,
and also about the fine art of manipulation.
“I watched you. I did exactly what you would do.”
The key to
understanding Passion rests with Christine, the character played to icy
perfection by Rachel McAdams.
Early in the film,
she recounts to Isabelle a story about her twin-sister, Clarissa. Specifically Clarissa was killed because of
Christine’s actions. Christine was
riding a bike when she was distracted by the bike’s mirror, and an oncoming
truck hit the girls. Only Christine survived.
“I just wanted to see myself…and I saw my
reflection,” Christine reports of the tragedy.
reveals that Christine keeps a creepy white mask -- one that is molded to resemble
her facial features -- because, again, she wants to “see” herself.
And in the absence
of her twin, that is not always easy.
Christine goes through the film and through her life attempting to re-make
others in the image she wants to see: her
own. In particular, this means that
Christine creates “users” and “manipulators” like herself, and indeed, that’s
the journey Isabelle takes in the film.
She goes from being a relatively normal person to a competitive player, to
a monster who becomes Christine’s “double” and equal. By film’s end, she has
been re-fashioned in Christine’s desired image, but she is not able to handle
it, perhaps because she possesses the conscience Christine abundantly lacks.
is reflected in the film specifically by De Palma’s book-end visuals.
As the film
starts, Christine and Isabelle are seen in tight two-shot together, gazing into
a computer screen. This shot links them
as friends and co-workers, and Christine is effusive in her praise for
Isabelle. Christine tells Isabelle how
well they work together and how much she loves her. Christine treats Isabelle a little like a
sister, a little like a lover.
Near the end of
the film, when Christine is long dead and therefore out-of-the-picture (or apparently out-of-the-picture), De Palma
deliberately stages the same two-shot, only this time populated with Isabelle
Again, the duo
gazes at a computer screen together, joined in some form of camaraderie and
affection. But this time, Isabelle is positioned in the frame where Christine
had been, and Dani takes her former position, as the apprentice or student.
In other words,
Isabelle has graduated to the role of Christine through her (bad) behaviors.
Master and Student.
Master and Student, Redux.
makes the outline of her journey (or character arc…) plain when she tells
Christine “I watched you…I did exactly
what you would do.” And later,
Isabelle dons Christine’s mask, the one molded in the image of Christine, thus
literally taking on her boss’s persona.
But here’s the
rub: Isabelle is not Christine.
If anything, she
is less stable than Christine, and when humiliated and abused by Christine,
Isabelle’s world starts to disintegrate.
after the public embarrassment at the company party, the very color palette of
the film is altered radically, going from what we would consider a “realistic”
canvas to a de-saturated, steely one rich in blues and silvers.
horizontal “slats” dissect the frame into lines - a sign of Isabelle’s new, fractured
sense of reality. In the course of just
one scene, then, her life has gone from normal to something akin to a film noir, dominated by deceit, murder
The world gone crazy.
Again, this visual
of Isabelle in a harsher, de-saturated world cues us in to the fact that
Christine has done her job too well. In
her effort to become Christine, Isabelle has crossed a border of morality or
even sanity, and the change in the film’s visualization suggests this
A crucial piece of Isabelle’s breakdown is
no doubt the public nature of her humiliation.
She is forced to watch a phone video of herself having sex with Dirk,
while Christine watches. She is forced
to relive -- in front of all her co-workers -- her nervous breakdown in the
parking garage. She is forced to account
to the police for a lunatic e-mail she apparently sent Christine (but which
Christine actually sent to herself).
Again and again, Isabelle’s failures and
her secrets are literally thrown-up in her face using the auspices of contemporary
technology. The final straw occurs when
Isabelle is blackmailed by Dani, and her very freedom hangs in the
balance. Dani need only hit the button
marked “Send” and the police will receive several videos demonstrating Isabelle’s
culpability in Christine’s murder. But
by this point, Isabelle is around the bend, and won’t let herself be
manipulated again. She has learned the
lessons of Christine too well.
There’s an intriguing “live by the sword/die by the sword”
aspect to this leitmotif in Passion. Isabelle escalated the tension with Christine
by releasing (or again, “sending”) her viral video to YouTube. That act was a transgression that could not
be taken back, and set the two women on their collision course of mutually
So much of
Passion plays out on the innovative tools of modern business and the
modern world, on “screen-within-screens.”
As viewers, we are
watching a story unfold within the rectangular movie frame while simultaneously,
Isabelle watches her life unfold, movie-like within a series of smaller frames,
either on smart phones, on televisions, or on computer video conferences like
Accordingly, many crucial
shots in the film “box” the protagonists within technological frames, within a
screen-within-a-screen, as it were.
At one point, the
boxing-in becomes so pervasive a composition that it almost becomes comical, as
we see characters within a frame, and another frame, and another frame, thus
suggesting their ever-constricting maneuvering space in the on-going game of
Finally, the full
reckoning of Isabelle’s embarrassment is almost too much to take, and so she
snaps, a fact made abundantly plain in the film’s last half, in which reality
seems re-shaped, and she seems to be unstuck from it, bouncing from jail cell
to interrogation, to her apartment, back to the jail cell, and finally to a climactic
The idea here is that Isabelle has been
manipulated and re-shaped, perhaps against her will, on at least two occasions
by different woman -- Dani and Christine.
That notion is reflected in Passion by the prominent role of a
modern ballet called Afternoon of a Faun.
That ballet, first performed in 1912, is
based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme which involved a faun (a rustic forest god)
awaking from a dream-filled slumber and recalling his erotic encounters with
several wood nymphs. In this case,
Isabelle awakes from her troubled slumber and remembers her interactions with
Christine and Dani…two “nymphs” that troubled her sanity.
Passion’s major set-piece involves Afternoon
of a Faun and is a De Palma classic. He stages Christine’s murder to
the music and visuals of Afternoon of a Faun, and in split
screen duality. In the left frame is the
modern ballet. In the right frame is
Christine, preparing for a night-time visitor, an unspecified sexual partner.
Occasionally here, Isabelle’s eyes appear
on screen in extreme close-up, in the left-frame, and so the question becomes: which scene is she witnessing?
ballet or the murder?
As Passion hurtles towards its
conclusion, the specter of Christine -- or
is it Clarissa? -- returns, the film reaches its zenith of intrigue and
nightmarish visualization, and we get our answer about poor, mad Isabelle.
We also get the answer to a very specific question
about Brian De Palma, and whether the director still has what it takes to
capture the imagination and dazzle the senses.