In Passion, Brian De Palma attempts to bring his trademark style of psycho-sexual thrills to the arena of corporate politics. The result is a ridiculous but entertaining mess. The movie teeters on the edge of camp for awhile, then plunges in headlong. Christine (Rachel McAdams), a high-ranking executive at an advertising firm based in Berlin, encourages and mentors her protege Isabel (Noomi Rapace), then happily takes credit for all her ideas. “There’s no backstabbing here,” a smiling Christine tells her furious pupil. “We’re on the same team.”
But Isabel is no angel, having already slept with Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson) before the boardroom betrayal. A series of increasingly elaborate power plays between the women ensue in which everything is fair game. McAdams’ lip-smacking performance as the conniving Christine is one of the movie’s chief pleasures. Energized by the opportunity to play something other than a romantic love interest, the actress radiates a predatory cunning; you can’t tell when the character is being honest (answer: practically never). Christine is all wolfish grins, deathly glares and, when she doesn’t get her way, petulant fits and elaborate paybacks. Passion is a remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 French-language thriller Love Crime, in which Kristin Scott Thomas played Christine, and the highest compliment you can pay McAdams is that she holds her own against Thomas.
Unfortunately, Rapace ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus) doesn’t fare as well. Her stilted line readings and shrill, blatantly fake bursts of laughter make Isabel come off as something of an idiot. Rapace takes the material too seriously: She doesn’t have fun with it, and De Palma, who has traditionally drawn great performances from actresses ( Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Femme Fatale), fails to get Rapace to loosen up.
The first half of Passion, which was shot by José Luis Alcaine ( The Skin I Live In), is filled with brightly lit scenes and extraordinarily vivid colors (the use of red is particularly striking, if a bit obvious). But once the story takes a crazy turn, everything suddenly goes dark, as if someone at the ad agency had forgotten to pay the light bill, and De Palma goes so crazy with the Dutch angles, the camerawork becomes a distraction.
Instead of contributing to the suspense, De Palma’s direction keeps pulling you out of the movie. Passion contains one of the most harebrained uses of a split screen I’ve ever seen — a heartbreaking choice by a filmmaker who was a master of the device. De Palma’s fumbled attempts to explore his longstanding theme of voyeurism via modern technology — cellphones, web cams, Skype — are more than a little sad. His decision to throw in some sexual kinks feels gratuitous and desperate, and the story’s sapphic undertones eventually take over the movie with unintentionally comic consequences.
But in the film’s last 10 minutes, De Palma goes for broke with one of his masterful setpieces, largely devoid of dialogue and heavy on Pino Donaggio’s perfectly overwrought score, that proves he remains a master of technique. The sequence is preposterous and far-fetched, but it is also wonderfully dumb, trashy fun, and by that point in Passion you take what you can get. The director even resorts to the “It was only a dream!” finale of Carrie and Dressed to Kill, but with a gruesome little twist. De Palma used to be accused of ripping off Hitchcock. Now he’s ripping off his own movies. What Passion ultimately lacks most, ironically, is passion, the artistic fervor that distinguished all his best pictures. This one feels like a throwaway by a gifted filmmaker who has run out of ideas.