De Palma’s Passion Is All Tricks–and Undervalued


Your life surges ahead as it is, pretty much, but maybe tinted blue. Maybe everything around you is tilted a bit, and strips of light glow on the wall, like an SUV with its brights on is idling on a ramp facing your window blinds. Your world looks not like noir but like the idea of noir in a Michael Jackson video.

You get used to it.

You read somewhere on your reading-machine that years ago Brian De Palma made a movie, Passion. Every muckety-muck at some film festival jeered it, and the movie vanished, and now, a lifetime later, it’s been rediscovered, released at last, reappraised and roundly toasted and available for you to enjoy on your laptop or flatscreen or your reading machine, which nobody uses to read anymore.

So, you settle in. You pay your laser dollars. You watch it. Turns out to be like one of those core samples scientists used to take out of glaciers, the air of long-gone eras in a preserved sequence. Here’s a parodic women-in-the-boardroom melodrama, the principals color-coded—blonde (Rachel McAdams), brunette (Noomi Rapace), redhead (Karoline Herfurth)—and love-triangled, each dominant for one act of the film, and each given to swapping personalities just when it would be most dramatic to do so. Here’s quaint corporate backstabbery whose big-money specifics are so vague, so risible, that you half-expect the movie may pull back at any moment and reveal that all this has been some oddly well-shot afternoon soap the characters are watching.

Here’s an early expression of concern that what we mostly see in our lives are screens, often screens showing screens, except for those moments when we’re staring into cameras—you know, during sex. Here’s paranoid sex-video stealing. Here’s once outré bedroom gear—Eyes Wide Shut masks, a red-licorice strap-on, a string of anal beads as chromed and wide as trailer hitches—in a film that’s less sexually explicit than most cable TV shows.

Here’s a familiar, bravura split-screen sequence recalling Dressed to Kill in its pairing of high art (this time ballet) and kinky stalking, but this time the effect seems less a new way of seeing than an acknowledgement of how we see already: With your web browser open, and the movie itself only taking up half of your device’s display, your screen is already split. De Palma trisects it.

Here’s ’90s Cinemax After Dark’s idea of lesbianism, and some sexy saxophone pillow music (from Pino Donaggio) that sounds like the tears of a Nagel print. Here are sumptuously lit corridors and staircases of the sort that are forever turning up in thrillers that aspire to the psychological (and Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety), the kind where the architecture is meant to suggest a disoriented mind. And here at last—a little later than would be ideal—is a ’70s De Palma murder, and then the wee brunette with the dry-crackle voice sinks into a drugged-out, wrongly accused plot recalling that Steven Soderbergh thing you saw on TCM last week, Side Effects, the one that ground that other girl with the dragon tattoo through something like the same pharmaceutical Hitchcockisms.

You pause Passion to check to see if maybe it were made as a parody of Side Effects. It wasn’t. It’s a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, from 2010.

You end up watching Side Effects again.

After that, it’s back to Passion, for a final third of fakeouts upon fakeouts, for scenes where De Palma, like some grand old pop star, seems to be greatest hits-ing us, giving us a pleasurable encore.

And then you wake up. You see the movie hasn’t been lost and found. It’s just getting a half-assed original release, dumped onto video on demand, gutted and ignored by critics. You put it on again, to see if they’re right. They’re not: If a new Woody Allen film came as close to the spirit and quality of vintage Woody Allen as Passion does to vintage De Palma, the world would plotz. I mean, Christ, have you seen Blue Jasmine? At least De Palma doesn’t think the Sweathogs have opened up a San Francisco chapter.

You resolve to tell the world.

Then you wake up.

You watch Passion again. Then Love Crime. Passion is pretty good. If you cared enough to make a list, it might be your fifth or sixth favorite De Palma. You could even argue it’s about something: the surveillance state, or sex on film, or some style-section piece De Palma may have read about how women sometimes don’t support each other in the workplace.

Then you wake up.