With its dismal reception on the festival circuit and direct-to-DVD fate in Europe, one expected Brian De Palma's Passion to be a laughably bad hot mess, another critical and financial failure for the infamously spotty auteur. A remake of Alain Corneau's Crime d'amour, De Palma has in fact created a singular work that is more intelligent, interesting, and entertaining than its source material, and clearly the work of a veteran filmmaker still in total command of his considerable and oft-misunderstood powers.
Perverting the French film's premise as only he can, De Palma follows the relationship between Isabel (Noomi Rapace), a rising talent at a multinational advertising agency, and the megalomaniacal exec Christine (Rachel McAdams, chewing scenery left and right and having a grand time doing it). De Palma's improvements are as much structural as they are stylistic, shifting the faceless corporate setting of the original to an ad agency and actually providing a creative means for Isabel to prove her cleverness and skilled planning. Here she brainstorms a cheeky ad campaign which ties nicely into the filmmaker's long held obsession with voyeurism, whereas Ludivine Sagnier's Isabelle simply thought of a vague business deal that was over and done with in ten seconds; another plot machination in a film that eventually grew lousy with them.
De Palma also introduces his trademark erotic touches, transforming the visually and tonally flat original into a glossy, beautifully lit sapphic ode to repressed desires, felt by Isabel, her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth, in a role De Palma shifts from male to female) and the more assertively dominant Christine. With its sexed up tale of increasingly violent female rivalry in the workplace, and De Palma's typically sly humour underpinning every scene, the film starts out like Showgirls by way of Dressed to Kill – once Isabel discovers that Christine has a fetish for creepy sex masks and likes to fuck her sharp suited alcoholic boyfriend with a strap on, you know you're in for a good time, aided immeasurably by Pino Donaggio's fantastic (if derivative) score, simultaneously channelling Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante défunte", Jon Brion's Magnolia and Ennio Morricone's The Thing, with a touch of sleazy eighties porn music for good measure.
What at first appears to be Brian De Palma's Showgirls, however, is far more complex and fascinating; not just a wickedly funny and entertaining piece of skilfully directed thriller trash, but something approaching Lynch's Mulholland Drive in terms of the complexity of the film's dream narrative.
[SPOILERS AHEAD] As hinted by De Palma in interviews, and true to much of the rest of his dream-obsessed body of work, the second half of Passion is (almost) entirely a nightmare had by Noomi Rapace's Isabel; her restless mind either confabulating a scenario of murder, or taking into account the final image of her as a murderess, a twisted reliving of events filtered through her guilt-ridden subconscious, wherein Christine's phoney twin becomes a very real and vengeful figure (sporting the same heels Isabel and Christine see a fallen model wearing at an earlier catwalk show), the cops are now on to her, etc. [END SPOILERS]
The marketing for Passion – ironically enough for a film centred around advertising* – is the unfortunate victim of a truly terrible ad campaign, with cheap festival posters and inelegant looking stills giving no hint as to how sensuous and striking José Luis Alcaine's cinematography is, nor a sense of how superb Noomi Rapace is here, a superior showcase for her English language acting skills than blockbuster hackwork like Ridley Scott's wretched exercise in franchise necrophilia or Guy Ritchie's besmirchment of classic literature.
Passion is a film branded dead on arrival by critics and festival audiences, as usual not willing to connect with De Palma's style of storytelling, which does away with their preconceptions of the modern thriller format, reverting back to the same operatic, fantastical style he has cultivated since Sisters, split screen and all.
Exactly in keeping with his most revered works, one imagines that if Passion's gorgeous visuals and feverish plot were obscured behind the distancing effect of vintage seventies film stock, smug modern audiences might look on this unfairly maligned comeback with more sympathetic eyes.
Passion is released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray from Metrodome August 12th. It opens in the US on-demand August 1st and theatrically August 31st.
*Even non-professional fan posters are vastly superior to the official advertising.