Passion Review

Brian De Palma's newest stab at an erotic thriller features lust, murder and some freaky sex toys. So why does it feel like Mean Girls?

Passion is a fairly bold title for a movie. It promises, heat, energy and, given that this is Brian De Palma, probably something pretty kinky when the only two truly major characters are women. However, despite some humorous nods to writer-director De Palma’s own previous work that range from Carrie to Femme Fatale, this film feels mistitled. A more fitting name simply would have been MehPassion, an apparent remake of the French film Love Crime, puts in the requisite effort to qualify itself as an erotic thriller. We have an ice princess played with tightly wound perversion by Rachel McAdams, always in white or the more fitting red. There is also her introverted and repressed employee, a protégé waiting to be broken in. And once you throw in some freaky sex toys, incestuous urges, betrayal, murder and a scene of ballet, it likely appeared to producers as lurid as it sounds. Yet for all the hypnotically luscious shots and tantalizing photography, from the man who gave us Scarface no less, the result is something that is pretty to look at but as emotionally empty as a gimp suit. Christine (McAdams) deceptively has it all. As an American living exceedingly well in modern Berlin, she runs the local branch of an international marketing firm and enjoys “the natives” being wrapped around her little finger. One disciple that she takes particular pleasure in is Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), an underling who idolizes and fantasizes her boss with all the wholesomeness of Mark David Chapman. Still, it is only hugs and slightly more than customary kisses until Isabelle’s viral marketing campaign gets her a ticket to the New York HQ fast lane, which Christine had only dreamt of. Quicker than Isabelle can say “fetch,” Christine turns her life into a living hell. First she takes back the boyfriend they had been sharing, Dirk (Paul Anderson), and then she pushes away Isabelle’s unrequited friend, Dani (Karoline Herfurth). When Christine is finally moving into the climax of her scheming, something unexpected (for her) happens, turning this all into a rote Whodunit mystery.
 To his credit, De Palma gorgeously photographs his picture. The colors pop while he pushes his ambivalent camera down the chic, ultra modern hallways of Koch International like they’re the tombs of humanity. He also enjoys playing with the color scheme to great effect. As mentioned, Christine alternates almost entirely between white and red whereas Isabelle is reliably in complete black. She also dons permanent slacks, lest we forget her somewhat vague gender role when around Christine. This is not to say that Isabelle is a lesbian, as she has just as much interest in Dirk as Christine. How else could she experience a taste of the goddess’ fire? Indeed, Dirk is very helpful, revealing that Christine likes bondage games that involve him wearing a pale mask with a blond wig. Isabelle questions in the film if this is a vanity quirk, however since Christine is a self-admitted twin, the implication is far ickier. De Palma also takes great pleasure (likely his only on the project) in visually coveting his two leading ladies. McAdams is cattiness incarnate, which Isabelle mistakes for its beautiful packaging. Meanwhile Rapace, still clearly an “It Girl” to Hollywood filmmakers like De Palma, Ridley Scott and Guy Ritchie thanks to her iconic turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has still yet to find an English language role that showcases the well of talent she displayed in the Swedish cinema. Here, she is asked to look scared, nervous, envious and aroused—but none of it really adds up to a fully complete character. The audience will understand Isabelle’s motives, particularly when Christine’s claws come out, but nobody could explain who Isabelle is as a person beyond her love for the ballet. It all admirably reaches for some psychosexual form of All About Eve with the three chain links of female succession lined in a row. But besides mistakenly following the Anne Baxter character, as opposed to Betty Davis, it never quite works because the central relationship does not feel like one amongst adults. The way Christine and Isabelle tease and prod each other between bursts of loving confessions reaches much closer to the perceived high school antics that McAdams broke out from.