September 20, 2012

NYFF 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

PASSION's Brian De Palma

Passion is the first "Brian De Palma film" in ten years. He's made movies since 2002's career summary Femme Fatale, but neither 2006's The Black Dahlia or 2007's Redacted foregrounded his trademarks: comically lurid sex scenes, smoothly menacing gliding camera movements that can turn three feet of empty hallway into the world's longest walk or effortlessly blast through quarter-miles, split-screen showboating. In Passion, De Palma parties like it's 1984 and he's making Body Double again: there's a seemingly familiar scene of villainess Christine (Rachel McAdams) lounging in her pad at night in a yellow nightgown and frilly lingerie, pouting while Pino Donaggio's shamelessly retro score pours on bongos and soft sax solos. It's a remake of the late Alain Corneau's last film, 2010's Love Crime, a studiously sexless drama which depicted its past-plausibility events with straight-faced chilliness. De Palma keeps many scenes, changes the shots and adds a few complications of his own: the sex toys and lesbian make-out sessions, no one will be shocked to learn, are his very own contribution.

Christine is the Berlin manager of a PR firm, who's grooming assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) to take her place. Christine and Isabelle's current project is a campaign for a Panasonic smartphone. (No such product exists: De Palma may be paying sardonic tribute to the longtime camera manufacturer in the age of digital cinema.) Isabelle makes a sample ad with the phone in the back pocket of her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) walking with the lens pointed at the world behind her, recording a variety of men joyously ogling her. "I love how my ass looks," Dani responds. "Yeah, but what do you think about the rest of it?" Isabelle asks. "I think it's brilliant," Dani replies—the desired response to De Palma's trademark combo of unapologetic prurience recorded with the most elaborate shots possible.


The board (not a woman among them) loves the ad, smiling and chuckling, allowing De Palma to rack up his usual depiction of men openly indulging in voyeurism. Later, they'll change their mind and decide—in Dani's summary—it's "too long and experimental." (Another score settled, as De Palma gets even with the money men.) Worse, Christine swipes credit for her labor, beginning an escalating sexual and professional war. Isabelle sleeps with Christine's sometime-lover Dirk (Paul Anderson), upping the personal stakes as her boss turns into a workplace bully. There will be blood, gratuitous sex and people committing murder in masks.

Detractors have largely given up on accusing De Palma of just selling Hitchcock rip-offs: the more he repeats himself, the clearer it is what makes him distinct. A more useful comparison might be David Lynch. Both De Palma and Lynch adore Vertigo, and both make movies in which their characters also often seem to be moving in a trance state. De Palma literalized this in 1978's The Fury, where telekinetic tyros in training are hypnotized to release their powers, but he uses the same visual language—slow zooms in on inexplicably fixed faces, somnambulant people wandering streets and hallways with no evident purpose—consistently.


Visual language trumps actual dialogue for De Palma, who's never been afraid to foreground the ridiculousness of his scripts for laughs. There's an accordingly Lynchian vibe to Passion, which pushes the limits of artistic products that seem to be produced by mentally competent adults. (Exhibit A for the prosecution: "Do you think I don't see what's going on in that dyke brain of yours?") McAdams seems possessed by an inappropriately chipper spirit most of the running time, as if her unpleasant character and natural perkiness are at irreconcilable odds. When Dirk and Isabelle shy away from her, afraid of revealing their affair with a stray word, she blurts out "You're both so complicated!" like the world's most naïve high school debutante, a moment of human behavior so inexplicable and inappropriate you have to laugh.

There's moments like this in Lynch's work too, which—seen with large audiences—provoke constant tittering scattered across the crowd at different times. One came during a would-be serious monologue from Isabelle about a childhood accident that led to the death of her twin sister. "You have a twin sister?" Isabelle asks, propping sniggers from crowd members with memories of Raising Cain, De Palma's super-indulgent riff, sibling-/twin- on Psycho's last scene.


In Passion, De Palma invokes not Hitchcock but himself, especially 2002's Femme Fatale, which is as dialogue-free as possible, which makes it the purest way to enjoy the director's visual stunts. After a career jeopardizing innocent men and women, Fatale gave the title character antihero status, as Rebecca Romijn's career thief made her way to a life of ill-funded luxury. Passion's characters are equally irredeemable, surrounded by Femme Fatale's water-flowing-everywhere and blue light motifs. Early reactions suggested that it only became a fully De Palma-esque work after the first half had passed, but the sardonically brain-dead opening dialogue and foregrounded plot inanity of the first half are recognizably his. The knowingly ridiculous dialogue suggests that he has a sense of humor about his self-indulgence.

Passion's success will depend on the De Palma familiarity of viewers. It's a truly fans-only effort: loyalists will love it and haters will have their distaste confirmed. With every "De Palma-esque" film, the director moves further and further up his own artistic colon, riffing on himself and expecting you to love his effects as much as he does. And why shouldn't he? Passion, like most of his work, is deliriously in love with the possibility of turning even the most basic shot into an event. The twists keep coming, but they're irrelevant for the total product, a mixture of delirious giggling at the auditory and visual excess that never lets up.

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Posted by ahillis at September 20, 2012 3:33 PM