New Brian De Palma films are comfort food for voyeurs who aren't peeping from inside the closet, but not proud gazing through someone's window either. It's difficult to find one that isn't intentionally sleazy in some way. Rarer still is the De Palma film that doesn't have one or two plot points directly hinging on one character watching another character watching someone else. The gaze is not the indirect subject of a De Palma film, but the reason for the plot.
At their best they're outlandish exercises in style, and when they're poor they become insufferable. Passion is a different breed. It has a climax that tries for the same kind of twisty, sexy tangles that punctuated his sexier thrillers. But the way it gets there is through a paint by numbers approach where those comfort food voyeur elements feel routine instead of titillating.
Despite the perfunctory feel of the film it still succeeds at being a pretty good time in the cinema. The brunt of this success is due to Rachel McAdams, who is having the best of times biting into an antagonistic role for the first time since Mean Girls. De Palma takes advantage of that comfort by putting her squarely in the middle of the kinkiest scenes of the film. She makes the arrival of a man dressed in leather while panting like a dog seem like the most wonderful and natural thing that could happen to a girl.
She plays Christine, an advertising executive who is creatively stuck on a campaign to promote a new line of jeans. Her partner is Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), who is a bit meeker in public but enjoys herself quite easily behind closed doors. Christine takes credit for Isabelle's latest idea after it becomes a wild success and starts trying to mold Isabelle into a lighter mirror image of the sexually dominant powerhouse she is.
As the tension heats up between the two I kept marveling at McAdms, and questioning Rapace. She is a fine actress and, based on her character arc in Prometheus last year, I know that she can portray steadily increasing psychosis very well. But here she seems completely out of her element against McAdams. Part of it has to do with her character, who is a bit meek to begin with, but even in the scenes where Isabelle is stretched to the end of her sanity Rapace does not find a way to make the psychosis emotionally potent in any way.
De Palma, too, has toned down considerably for this film. He doesn't come anywhere close to approaching the fever dream of Femme Fatale, but the world he's portraying here is much cooler. The color palette matches, freeing the incessant use of blue from horror movies and crime thrillers to a more sensual, but controlling, use here. As the plot unfolds, Christine and Isabelle both try to dominate each other sexually and professionally, while De Palma floods their world with icier tones of blue. This makes some of the more lurid details, like a mannequin mask that brings surprising pleasure to Christine, pop out dramatically.
His signature split-screen cinematography is used once again in the centerpiece sequence of Passion, but even that is a straightforward presentation of two events that doesn't seem to have anything at stake. When, suddenly, there is something at risk the effect is immediate, but pacified quickly by outsiders coming into the plot. These foreign elements don't add a sense of danger, but instead are boxes ticked off for conflict. The film ends without anything ever really feeling as though anything was at risk, which is at odds with the peaks of the build up.
Many of De Palma's films brush up against, or openly flirt with, misogynistic impulses. Here the material is so tame it hardly has the chance to be that offensive. But even those moments that overcome the temptation do so either through McAdams' performance or by his usual twisty observations through voyeurism.
If you haven't gathered by now, I was close to indifference with this effort, but the performance by McAdams is so strong that I can recommend it on that basis alone. Without her, Passion would be an ironic title.
Directed by Brian De Palma.
Screenplay written by De Palma, Natalie Carter, and Alain Corneau.
Starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace.