Twenty years since their last collaboration, director Brian De Palma and composer Pino Donaggio reunite in their latest work, Passion. The reunion both recalls the virtuosic filmmaker's best period—the late 70s/early 80s—and revitalizes the career of a master, whose recent filmography's quality has been spotty at best. Redacted (2007) was an interesting experiment in utilizing found footage to tell a story about the Iraq war that collapsed under the weight of its propaganda-like liberal agenda (and I say this as someone who leans considerably to the left). And the postwar neo-noir, The Black Dahlia (2006), should have been a slam dunk for a director who's always shown an ease for crime stories, but instead, it felt oddly inept at delivering its admittedly sprawling, complicated plot. Not since 2002's Femme Fatale has De Palma manipulated his audience so boldly or so wittily as he does with Passion.
For the first half of Passion, the plot adheres pretty closely to its source material, Alain Corneau's Love Crime (Crime d'amour)(2010), the story of two women—a corporate director and her up-and-coming protegee—who backstab each other as they race to the top. With De Palma free from preoccupying himself with a premise that was successfully executed once before, he concentrates on laying the visual groundwork for Passion. Using mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout indicate how closely the ice blonde, Christine (Rachel McAdams), and the earthier brunette, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), reflect each other in ambition if not in appearance.
De Palma once again employs his trademark split screen effects, not just in a flashy central setpiece ostensibly following the dual actions of the film's rivals but even in subtler methods that recall Redacted. One pivotal scene has Isabelle receiving a Skype call from her boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson), a man that she has also shared with her boss. When she answers the call she's surprised to find Christine on the other end—a self-loathing Dirk by her side—as a video of Dirk fucking Isabelle plays in the background on a flatscreen TV. For one moment—in a shot of Isabelle's laptop screen—we can see the video, wicked Christine snickering in delight and a small window framing Isabelle's horrified face. Cut to the next shot: a single take following Isabelle from her office into the elevator and back out to the building's parking garage as she frantically dives into her car.
De Palma tweaks Corneau's original story by changing Isabelle's passive aggressive male assistant to the more comely female, Dani (Karoline Herfurth), a lesbian whose crush on Isabelle assures she'd do anything to cover for her superior. This simple change allows the film to depart in quite a different direction for its conclusion, much more satisfying than the procedurally complicated one of Corneau's film. Again De Palma lets his camera speak for him, drastically changing the lighting scheme from a flatter high-key setup to a more expressionistic, noirish one once stressed out Isabelle begins popping pills to cope with Christine's machinations.
This sets the stage for Passion's impressive climactic sequence, driven by Donaggio's score in much the same way the dreamy epilogues for Carrie and Dressed to Kill owed something to the composer's creepy scoring in those picture. De Palma, a formalist more attuned to the visually technical and emotional than to the plot-driven or intellectual, fashions a tag for the story that many may find outrageous and nonsensical given the leaps in logic required. But it demonstrates the confidence the reinvigorated director has in his abilities—and Donaggio's—to sweep the viewer up in Passion's phantasmagoric conclusion. Brian De Palma is back.
Passion is playing at the 50th New York Film Festival at
Update 9/30: Last night's premiere of Passion apparently ran into some technical issues and was cancelled. A new screening was added for 1 pm tomorrow, October 1st. It's tough to see how the same kind of audience that would attend a Saturday night showing could manage to make a Monday afternoon show, a fact the NYFF concedes given the change from the massive Alice Tully Hall to the more modest Francesca Beale Theater. But given the logistics of running a festival such as this, it's good to see that the festival organizers made some kind of effort.