There was a time a few decades ago when director Brian De Palma was known for making some rather gritty films. The 70s saw him delivering horror (“Sisters,” “Carrie”), thrillers (“Obsession”), and even a musical-fantasy (“Phantom of the Paradise”). This changed a little bit during the late 80s and on into the 90s when he started making films like “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Snake Eyes,” but every now and again, he would go back to his roots, revisiting what made him a big name in the first place. While recent attempts at it have not been quite as successful (“The Black Dahlia”), that hasn’t stopped him from soldiering on, which brings us to his latest attempt at returning to the grittier side of cinema.
“Passion” tells the story of Christine (Rachel McAdams), an executive at an advertising company, and one of her helpers, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). While the two are working on a marketing campaign, Isabelle has a sudden breakthrough, delivering an idea that becomes a big hit. To her dismay, Christine takes credit for the idea, getting herself a promotion in the process. As the campaign progresses, Isabelle discovers that certain changes are to be made to her original ad, prompting her to put it online. In just a matter of hours, it becomes a huge hit, turning the higher-ups’ attention from Christine to Isabelle in a snap. So begins a war of backstabbing that eventually leads to something much more serious than a simple betrayal.
“Passion” is one of those films that could almost act as a guilty pleasure if there weren’t so many silly things holding it back. De Palma, who is usually one for making competent and intriguing stylistic choices, seems to have gone a little out of his way to turn this into a B-thriller on purpose. The film starts off in a somewhat normal fashion, introducing us to the characters, developing their little war, but as it gets to about the halfway point, things begin to get a little strange.
At this point, De Palma tries to change the tone of the film by having it be more of a psychological thriller. The switch is quite clear and a bit jarring, suddenly jumping into the dreams of one of the characters. However, just in case you’re not sure that what you’re watching is a dream, he dims the lights and films everything at a slant. He obviously wants this to have the effect of being unsettling and, of course, dream-like, but by using it for as long as he does, it becomes a little too cheesy.
The story at the heart of the film is rather engaging and is not one that really needed to be dressed up with as much flourish as De Palma felt it needed. It is ultimately this flourish that ends up getting in the way of a lot of it, particularly when it comes to the climax. Is it a dream? Is it a dream within a dream? Did any of it really happen? You may notice that you care less and less as you see the character wake up over and over again.
Aside from the style, the third act has a few plot twists that didn’t come off as believable. At this point in the film, it’s basically a “whodunit” where we’re finally told all in the last few minutes, but this is where some of the events just don’t add up. It’s fine if you don’t think about them too hard, but for those of us who actually like the solutions to mysteries to make sense, you may find yourself among the perplexed.
Even with these issues, I find it hard to condemn the film completely. As I mentioned, there is an engaging story here that has you hanging on to find out what happens, but the way De Palma went about putting it together will probably have you more amused than shocked. I don’t believe that I’ll be the only one to say this, but “Passion” was rather lacking in just that, becoming more an exercise in how surreal De Palma could make the story rather than just letting the events play out in a relative normalcy.
I hope this won’t dissuade De Palma from continuing to return to this kind of film time and time again (his other recent misfires don’t seem to have stopped him). He’s delivered several great ones in the past, and I’d hate to think he’s lost his touch, but it is a bit disheartening to think that he hasn’t made a good movie since 1996. His older films showed an understanding that style shouldn’t trump the substance. If the substance is strong enough, it will speak for itself without being dressed up in a flashy manner. He knew it then, let’s hope he remembers for the near future. 2.5/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release. Now available on Video on Demand.
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