Christine (Rachel McAdams) possesses the natural elegance and casual ease associated with one who has a healthy relationship with money and power. Innocent, lovely and easily exploited, her admiring protegée Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is full of cutting edge ideas that Christine has no qualms about stealing. They’re on the same team, after all... Christine takes pleasure in exercising control over the younger woman, leading her one step at a time ever deeper into a game of seduction and manipulation, dominance and humiliation. But when Isabelle falls into bed with one of Christine’s lovers, war breaks out.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In a recent interview to promote Passion, his first feature film in six years, the veteran American filmmaker Brian De Palma said, 'I like to photograph women. I like to work with women. I like to hang out with women. I like the way they look. I like to dress them up. I like to dress them down." If you replaced 'women" with 'Barbie dolls" you might get a sense of how De Palma not only toys with his two female protagonists, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, but directs them as aids to his private game and not characters.
Palma has little comprehension of female lives once they cease being ciphers in a world of male desire
Set in an icy and impersonal Berlin branch of a multinational advertising agency where borders, political and personal, are seemingly irrelevant, Passion is a restructured version of French director Alain Corneau’s 2010 mystery, Love Crime. McAdams is Christine, an alpha female who runs the office with the same kind of snide terror the actor used in the high school comedy Mean Girls. Her creative deputy, Rapace’s Isabelle, is wound to her with exaggerated friendliness and sexual flirtations that are meant to shock, and when Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s idea she tells her that it’s not backstabbing if she’s open about it.
On a performance level, McAdams is something of revelation in Passion. She projects a luxurious selfishness and proves to be a dab hand at the biting remark; she’s entertaining but never quite camp, and if she ever finds a drama to test her might reveal something unexpected. As it is, with her hair tied into a chignon bun and milky white skin divided by fulsome red lips, she’s a projection of De Palma’s enduring affection for icy Hitchcock blondes, visually recalling Angie Dickinson in 1980’s Dressed to Kill.
The problem is that De Palma, who scripted the adaptation, has little comprehension of female lives once they cease being ciphers in a world of male desire. Isabelle ricochets from one emotion to the next, and while there’s an element of dual personalities to the mystery which takes hold – you can tell when because ruddy great seams of horizontal shadow fill every noir-inflected frame – she’s essentially an incomprehensible mess then a vicious imitator of Christine and so forth. There’s nothing beneath the simplistic and ever-changing motivation.
As is his wont, De Palma – aided and abetted by veteran collaborator Pino Donnaggio’s increasingly hysterical score – turns the final act into a feverish whirl of entry and revelation, accusation and revelation; Joan Crawford would have been right at home playing Christine. The addition of Isabelle’s German assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth), only makes the Sapphic fascination explicit, and while the provocation is amusing in an almost nostalgic way, De Palma’s use of the camera lacks his once precise grace, the film gets to the point where the sighting of a grave makes you think that he’s going to go all the way and reprise Carrie’s finale. As it is, a film about female power and how it’s wielded can rally only tell us about the man holding the strings.