'Passion': De Palma still has style
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Once at the forefront of the group of then-young '70s American directors known to some as "the movie brats" (their like also included such giants as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese), Brian De Palma, like that group's metaphorical big brother Francis Ford Coppola, is now a purveyor of what the late great film critic Andrew Sarris deemed "expressive esoterica." With one big difference from Coppola: De Palma doesn't own a profitable winery that allows him to finance his own projects.
His latest feature, "Passion," like a lot of art cinema these days, opens with a formidable "Presents" list in the credits. Like much of its backing, its content source is European. The movie is ostensibly a remake of a more straightforward French corporate thriller with Sapphic overtones, "Love Crime." In that 2010 picture, an older female executive steals ideas from her go-getter assistant, with largely conventional cat-and-mouse results. De Palma's remarkably varied career has taken him from heights such as "Carrie," "Scarface" and "Carlito's Way" to lows such as "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and 2007's risible "Redacted." He picks up this material and runs it into his full sensationalist metafictional mode., which is a lot of fun if you can hang with it.
In the reboot, both the protagonists are relative young 'uns: Rachel McAdams plays the advertising/viral media honcho who adapts a phone-camera video conceived and shot by her protégée, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), into a campaign she takes full credit for. Don't worry, she assures Isabelle, she'll get the credit and all else due to her in good time -- provided she plays ball. And that is about as coherent as the narrative gets, and stays, before De Palma embarks on a visually lush orgy of sexual betrayals, homicides imagined and real, or imagined and imagined, and other fancies, all of them enacted in cool modernist spaces clean enough to accommodate multiple screens within screens.
While "Redacted" completely dropped the ball on its Iraq War "found-footage" conceit by serving up footage that looked like it wouldn't have been "found" even in the basement of Tommy Wiseau, "Passion" is the work of a director who's done his Skype homework.
The phone-camera advertising spot looks like the real thing, or enough like the real thing to keep you in the movie, as does the hotel sex "tape" and so many of the mini-movies within this movie. De Palma's style has always used split-screen, and his compositions often manipulate backgrounds and foregrounds so that one tells an almost completely different story than the other does, simultaneously. Our ways of looking at the world seem to have caught up with De Palma's way of presenting information on a cinema screen. And as I said, it's all pretty exhilarating if you're tuned in on that level.
Those looking for a plausible and conventionally engaging suspense thriller, on the other hand, might be brought up short. While De Palma's visual sense is stronger than it's ever been, his dialogue is as stilted as it's ever been, too. And the narrative limbs he climbs on to, one of them involving a character taking a strong prescription sleep aid that provides a pretext for quite a bit of off-the-rails cinematic showmanship, might alienate the viewers that master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock once nicknamed "the plausibles." But if you're an old De Palma fan or just a film fan willing to forgo common sense for the sake of some racy baroque movie thrills, "Passion" ought to prove a satisfying romp.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.