Compared to a number of his contemporaries (John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis, David Lynch), Brian De Palma’s post-millennium CV looks relatively robust; five films, where some of those names are lucky to be able to claim two. Sure, it’s half the tally of Spielberg, but you can count the filmmakers as prolific as he is on one the fingers of one hand (Woody, Clint). De Palma’s almost on a par with Robert Zemeckis. The difference being that Zemeckis’ name holds cachet. De Palma’s harbours cult-appeal, but in a slightly past-it, still-playing-in-the-same-sandbox kind of way.
It’s not like he ever went the full commercial route anyway. There were a couple of lucky accidents; the impact of Carrie, which he famously cast simultaneously with George Lucas for Star Wars. Scarface introduced him to the gangster milieu, which he returned to several times and was the home of possibly his finest combination of crowd-pleasing and visual pizazz (The Untouchables). But he never seemed willing to put aside his pet obsessions aside for very long. Bonfire of the Vanities extinguished his studio clout as quickly as it had arrived and, if Mission: Impossible boasted some of his favoured themes and cinematic grammar (surveillance, the extended multi-perspective set piece) while yielding the biggest success of his career, the goodwill it garnered didn’t last long.
De Palma’s 2000s have been patchy to say the least. Mission to Mars featured a couple of good set pieces but was no more distinguished than the same year’s Red Planet. The Black Dahlia was another flirtation with big Hollywood productions, back to the crime genre, but the result was horribly miscast and botched in ways that brought out the worst in its director. The mannered melodrama that works so well in his self-spun films detracted from the long-awaited translation of James Ellroy’s novel. I must revisit Femme Fatale, his first solo screenplay since Raising Cain (David Koepp scripted Snake Eyes, based on De Palma’s idea; that film is a beserk visual feast and makes the most of Nic Cage in full whacko mode). I found it utterly unmemorable; even if you don’t care for his pictures, they’re usually at least arresting. I haven’t yet seen Redacted, a low budget Iraq War drama; political and social commentary have never been his strong suit (even though that’s where he started out with his ‘60s pictures), and Casualties of War and Bonfire both managed to overegg their themes or flat-out mutilate them.
Passion is a confluence of much that is best and worst in De Palma. The script is his, and the bare bones of the plot resemble several of his classic psychological thrillers. These films in his oeuvre are the stuff of lazy labelling (a Hitchcock imitator, they say, as if someone who shares Hitch’s rare flair for visual storytelling is to be dismissed). This picture is a giddy melange of kinky passions, cruel manipulations, voyeurism, doppelgangers, masked assailants, fake-out dreams sequences (or are they?), sudden reveals and elegant-but-bloody murders. And throughout, there is the director’s cold, gleaming eye. It’s a gaze he shares with both Hitchcock and David Cronenberg (albeit, more pronounced in Cronenberg’s work up to the end of the ‘80s); a clinical detachment that defines him as borderline misanthropic (his most ardent detractors would claim he is straight-up misogynistic, but that seems like far too easy and emotive a tack to take). His characters are merely players in an elaborate and intricate game.
Because his camera remotely observes, rather than identifies with, his protagonists, there’s a sense that anyone in his films may be subject to the cruelty of sudden fate. It keeps viewers on their toes. Critic Pauline Kael was a huge advocate of the director. She delighted in his craftsmanship and wicked sense of humour. Then, she was one for going out on a limb and bucking the party line. Feting someone more used to taking brickbats (particularly during the early ‘80s, when he was prone to waving the worst excesses he was accused of in critics’ faces; see Body Double) was par for the course. But she was absolutely correct about his prowess and distinctiveness, and neither was she blind to his failings (one could do worse than read her essay on Scarface, a picture whose reputation has grown out of proportion to its merit).
As enjoyable as many of his early ‘80s pictures are, there was an indulgence to his pastiches of both Hitchcock and his own films that really needed stamping on. It’s why The Untouchables felt so fresh, a startling effective marriage of his skill in scene construction with a script that couldn’t be further from his pet obsessions. By the time he made Body Double, he was just trying to provoke, and there’s a slightly weary desperation to it; the set pieces are flawless, but he could do this in his sleep. This is the Catch-22 of the auteur; the things that make them famous are also the ones that eventually cause the well to run dry. Even someone as roundly acclaimed as Woody Allen has gone for stretches of uninspired doodling. Because we haven’t seen a new De Palma in five years, there’s a glorious recognition when one of his trademark devices surfaces. When the first split screen shot arrives, my reaction isn’t “Oh, he’s using that again”; it’s “Why does no one else have the acumen he does?”
Lest we forget, De Palma is now in his 70s. As an aging wunderkind, it’s at least gratifying that his approach has not devolved or become neutered. He only betrays his fogeyishness where he attempts to be relevant, which feel a little like an embarrassing granddad holding forth on the latest acts in the pop charts. It’s not as if his best movies relied on the zeitgeist anyway; they exist in their own microcosm, an artificially heightened plane that at best runs parallel to the real world and more truthfully refuses to be beckoned by contemporary relevance. So the foregrounded Macbooks, with cast members sat rapt before them, and conversations concerning YouTube rather jar. When De Palma sees fit to introduce references to a Ponzi scheme one character has become embroiled in, it is clumsy in a way we aren’t used to simply because De Palma isn’t the type to chase superficial topicality. Perhaps he felt the need to drop in such references to appeal to investors, to actually get the film made (although, I believe him when he says he’s always been a tech head – see Dressed to Kill for a bit of autobiographical surveillance) but it doesn’t mean that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
De Palma adapted Passion from the French film Crime d’amour, although you’d be forgiven for assuming the genesis was all his own. Rachel McAdam’s Berlin-based bitch ad agency boss Christine Stanford takes credit for protégée Isabelle James’ (Noomi Rapace) great idea. As Isabelle protests, and embarks on an affair with Christine’s beau (Paul Anderson) so Christine ups the psychological attacks and humiliations. Before long, murder is on the mind. Throw in a suggestion of S&M (the contents of Christine’s draw are very un-Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle’s devoted assistant (Karoline Herfurth), who also carries a torch for her, and you have all the necessary ingredients for De Palma to work his magic.
Unfortunately, as with The Black Dahlia, the casting is off. You can believe in McAdams as a manipulative mare, but not as the Sharon Stone agency boss type. Even less as a dirty little sexpot. She doesn’t have the maturity or presence. And Rapace, called on to be the shrinking, repressed violet, is more of a natural fit for the dominatrix of the relationship. There’s only a year between the actresses, so there’s never really a sense of mentor and pupil (indeed, Rapace carries a sense of worldy-wisdom lacking in McAdams). Herfurth is great as the impassioned junior, while Anderson seems to be having more fun playing a British tosser than the audience does watching him; he’s too unrefined to become a truly hissable cad.
The early scenes between the leading ladies are rather forced, with everyone trying too hard. De Palma is going for the exaggerated interactions of Dressed to Kill, but without that film’s lush aesthetic the performers are left high and dry. When Isabelle’s idea is revealed, “Asscam”, there’s a toe-curling feeling of how passé this all is, and it remains a mystery how the campaign received 10 million YouTube hits in five hours. The faux-hipness isn’t fooling anyone, particularly as this is also a movie where the one of the leads smokes away in her office as if she was running a business 30 years ago.
But, around the point when Christine ritually humiliates Isabelle in front of her colleagues, De Palma’s movie finally clicks into gear. He makes good narrative use of modern spy systems, something he’s right at home with, and by the time he ushers in the signature split screen sequence his movie has become as engrossing as the best of his twisted psychodramas. Also on the credit side, one of the key twists hinges on the abuse of prescription medicine; with this and Side Effects, maybe he isn't completely out of touch.
The big problem with the movie, which no amount of directorial flourish can overcome, is that it looks terrible. De Palma uses Pedro Almodovar’s regular DP, Jose Luis Alcaine, and he might have reasonably assumed that the results would yielded a rich and sumptuous palate. But Passion looks dreadful. There’s no depth here. The visuals are flat, and the colours washed-out. The interiors never take on a life of their own; we are always conscious that this was filmed on sets (much like Cronenbrerg’s early work). The 1:85:1 aspect ratio feels restrictive when the grand spectacle kicks in. This is a far cry from the director’s definitive collaborations with Stephen H. Burum. Anyone who saw the fourth season of Damages will testify to how bad cinematography can kill a show or movie; this isn't quite so shocking, but we're used to an embarrassment of riches from De Palma. Pino Donaggio’s score also feels like a faint call back to better work. De Palma hasn’t so much let us down creatively as made poor choices of crew.
So the results are never dreamy enough to carry the full flavour of his narrative. It’s as if his mojo has been diffused by the faltering visuals. While the second half of the movie, with its trad-De Palma twists and double twists, goes a considerable way to making up for this, it remains disappointing. You can’t help but inwardly cheer when the director tops one dream sequence with another, hinges events on an all-important mislaid item, introduces the possibility of a character having a twin sister, or ends the movie in a way that is the maximum cliché of how we expect him to end a movie but is also irresistible. Yet it’s a significant disappointment that formerly his strongest constant, the gorgeous images, have deserted him on this occasion.
Passion is well worth seeing (it didn’t even merit a Blu-ray release in the UK and bypassed cinemas). The sad thing is, this is a director who can construct a narrative that is just as engaging as he was at his peak, and he still has the same talent for putting a scene together. Where he falters is partly with the random casting but mainly in an area I would never have countenanced. Passion looks cheap.