Passion is the latest film from director Brian De Palma and is a remake of the French film Crime d'amour (2010), which starred Kristin Scott Thomas. De Palma is perhaps best known for his admiration for Hitchcock thrillers and applying Hitchcockian traits to his own films such as Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Following in the same trend, Passion is a film that also owes a lot to Hitchcock, including a cool blonde, murder and insanity, but it sadly lacks the black comedy and sophistication that Hitchcock injected into many of his films.
Set in the world of advertising, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is an assistant to the manipulative executive Christine (Rachel McAdams) who takes credit for Isabelle’s advertising campaign. After Isabelle rebels against Christine’s dominance, Christine subjects her protégé to workplace humiliation. Isabelle descends into a deep depression becoming addicted to sleeping pills and experiencing vivid dreams. Events take a dramatic turn when Christine’s mutilated body is found and Isabelle becomes a suspect.
The feature film is somewhat anticlimactic when considered alongside the trailer, which suggested an erotic crime thriller filled with violence and nudity. Struggling with a very dull first act, the final act is more engaging, presented as one long dream sequence where the compelling Rapace has more opportunity to show off her evident acting skills. Isabelle’s swift decline into madness is reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan (2010). Indeed, Passion appears to actively seek out the Aronofsky film as a reference point, with Isabelle even attending a ballet performance at a crucial juncture. Similarly, the film deals with the themes of obsession, perfection, seduction and insanity. There are some other notable references that stand out and are largely effective, such Inspector Bach's (Rainer Bock) ascent up a flight of stairs which is a clear nod to Cary Grant’s famous staircase climb in Suspicion (1941). While Passion may be entertaining to the avid cinephile who enjoys creating homage checklists, the film is ultimately weighed down by its numerous references to other texts and lacks an overall sense of originality. Even Christine’s sexual cravings seem tame and lack the desired impact.
Isabelle’s speedy, if not over-exaggerated and even comical, descent into insanity is brilliantly captured by the film’s cinematographer José Luis Alcaine who draws upon the characteristics of German Expressionism to create the haunting world Isabelle now finds herself inhabiting. High and low angle shots distort facial expressions making it hard for Isabelle and the viewer to trust other key characters. In order to create an unnerving atmosphere, the camera is rarely level with the audience but this makes it harder to emphasise with Isabelle. De Palma’s obsession with voyeurism is not forgotten with Passion and here the director has updated his obsession for a modern audience, addressing the contemporary fascination with technology and desire to record every movement of our lives. The manipulation and abuse of technology is a prominent feature in the film: Isabelle’s advertising campaign involves a camera phone in the back pocket of a beautiful woman, recording all the sneaky looks of others; fellow employee Dirk (Paul Anderson) records his affair with Isabelle; and CCTV captures Isabelle’s mental breakdown. De Palma shows the audience that observation has evolved and now has the potential to have a far more devastating effect on people’s lives.
Relishing in the delight of tormenting others, McAdams’ Christine is a far cry from her romantic drama persona as seen in The Notebook (2004) and The Vow (2012). Both lead actresses are enjoyable to watch, even with their melodramatic and over-the-top performances. Their relationship is reminiscent of that between the main characters in Showgirls (1995), the acting is just as overplayed and the plot is equally as ludicrous. Like Showgirls, Passion does not shock the viewer but amuses them, arguably unintentionally.
It is safe to say Passion is not De Palma’s strongest piece. It is even amateurish in places, lacking a clear sense of direction. Underwritten characters, trite dialogue and a poorly constructed first act let down the film and yet there are some redeeming features and it is largely entertaining in spite of its flaws. The film is not quite the disaster some critics have made it out to be but nor is it the erotic and sensual thriller the viewer has been led to expect. Passion is a film trying ever so hard to be clever but, like McAdams’ advertising exec, the end result is a bit too overstated and smug but nevertheless intriguing.