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 [1973], The Fury [1978]) and protagonists who develop special cameras or other devices designed exclusively to watch or listen to unwitting quarry (Dressed to Kill [1980], Blow Out [1982]).

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, Passion is 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. 

Specifically, 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.

Stylish, brutal and at times quite funny, Passion re-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 filmmaking.

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 here…”

At a 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.

Sometime later, 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. 

Another scene 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.

Accordingly, 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.

Isabelle’s journey 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 and Dani. 

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.

Isabelle also 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. 

Almost immediately 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. 

Furthermore, 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 and intrigue.

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 transgression. 
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 assured destruction.
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 Skype. 

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 brinkmanship.

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 nightmare.
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? 

The 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.   
He does indeed, and with a passion.


  1. Terrific review John. I think you're particularly astute about how modern critics and audiences are not really prepared to read De Palma's multilayered film grammar any more. They latch onto convoluted absurdities in the plot without thinking, well, De Palma's a smart guy, maybe that's deliberate--what is he *really* saying here? I remember watching Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" a couple of years ago and wondering, do modern audiences have any idea how to read this film? Technologically, we've progressed by leaps and bounds, and in terms of character and narrative complexity, the best TV series like "Homeland" and "Breaking Bad" are epic in scope, incredibly nuanced and rich, but in terms of pure visual storytelling I feel we've lost ground.

    1. Hi SteveW,

      I am in total agreement with your comment.

      I agree with you that writers today understand -- in programming like Homeland or Breaking Bad -- how to surprise us and impress us with ambiguities and layers in the narrative. But, simultaneously, such enterprises evidence no real mastery of visual form, or visual storytelling.

      This is one reason I like to frequently return to 1970s films.

      In that era, De Palma, Coppola, Altman, Hooper, Boorman and sometimes Spielberg were working within the framework of a visual language with a very formal "grammar," and to understand fully their works, we had to read that language; we had to understand that grammar.

      Today, that just doesn't happen.

      Critics and audiences now just judge a film on whether or not, in their opinion, the plot tracks in a logical way from point A to point Z, and spoon-feeds them the message or the point.

      An appreciation of film artistry has been lost, and as I always say, film is primarily a visual medium. Otherwise its just radio with pictures.

      It's a shame, because Passion is one of the best films I've seen so far in 2013, and deserves stronger appreciation and recognition.

      But a lot of people, I think, don't really understand the visual language of film anymore. I hope I can help to change that in some small way, but when I read the critical slams against a movie like Passion I lose hope. A film is more than a plot...it's a visual expression of a leitmotif or idea, and much crucial information about the characters and their motivations is carried in purely visual content.

      Great thoughts!


  2. Great write up. I'm interested.
    But I think comparing television and film is tricky.
    Homeland and particularly Breaking Bad definitely have their visual
    Moments. I know I've enjoyed the craft on display throu out BB but it's in much smaller doses or spread out. But I get the point even if the comparison is a little off. The points made certainly hold true in film. It's indeed sorely lacking in
    much of film today to be sure.

  3. Trevor Vant4:06 AM

    A great write up John. De Palma is so often misunderstood amongst critics, and if you have not seen De Palma's back catalogue then Passion would probably be seen as somewhat absurd. You totally 'get' his visual grammer and sense of storytelling. Any plans to write a book on De Palma's cinema? There's not a single decent book out there covering his complete filmography with De Palma's common recurring themes.

  4. Alexandre Bender8:54 PM

    Thank you John. Once again you're among the few Americans who truly understand De Palma's genius. I love your analysis.You perfectly get what De Palma is telling the viewer with Passion. Even if he's 72, he's still one of the few North American directors who truly has something to say in his movies.

    Still waiting for your De Palma book ;)
    Keep on your great work.

    Thanks again!



20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...